Cleveland hopes to snap 17-game skid
Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers are at odds, battling and bickering over money. It’s a football family fight.
The Browns won’t play peacemakers.
“They can beat each other up for all we care,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said Wednesday. “It does not matter.”
But Bell’s absence from Sunday’s season opener between the AFC North neighbors could have a major impact on Cleveland’s chances of ending a 17-game losing streak — and perhaps infuse a little life into a dormant rivalry.
Bell still hasn’t joined his teammates as the Pro Bowl running back continues his holdout for a new contract. The stare-down between the sides has reached a critical juncture — and either a breaking or turning point — as the Steelers are days away from opening a new season.
When the 26-year-old Bell didn’t report to the team and sign his $14.5 million one-year contract tender earlier this week, several of the team’s offensive linemen voiced their displeasure toward a player they normally do all they can to protect.
“Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn, so I guess we’ll treat it as such,” veteran guard Ramon Foster said. “I just hate it came to this.”
The Browns aren’t complaining.
Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t the same without Bell, one of the NFL’s best offensive players who ran for 1,291 yards last season despite missing training camp after reporting just a few days before the opener in Cleveland.
No Bell at all would seem to give the Browns an edge.
“He’s a talented player,” said defensive end Myles Garrett, who sat out last season’s first game with a serious ankle sprain. “He’s one of the best in the league at his position, so it definitely is an advantage to us. That’s up to him.”
Bell wasn’t himself in last year’s opener, rushing for just 32 yards on 10 carries and catching three passes for 15 yards. But because he’s Le’Veon Bell, the Browns had to account for him on every play.
“He’s a great player so he is always going to be a focal point,” linebacker Christian Kirksey said. “I just think that we game-planned well. I think that [defensive coordinator] Gregg [Williams] had a good game plan for us to attack their offense. I just think that if it was him or any other running back, we were going to try to shut them down.”
Pittsburgh will turn to second-year back James Conner to replace Bell and start. Conner, who survived a cancer scare while in college, had just 32 carries as a rookie. But the Browns been watching a lot of video on him and have been impressed.
“They are different,” Jackson said, comparing Bell and Conner. “The other guy is a proven, top of the line, one of the top players in the league. Not that James Conner is not that, he just has not done it to the level that Le’Veon has.
“For their offense, he knows how to play in their system. He is a good football player. He will make plays for them. We have to do everything that we can to shut down the run game, whether it is Le’Veon or whether it is James Conner. Just have to do our job on defense the best hat we can.”
Of course, the Steelers still have future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown to offset Bell’s loss.
And while the Browns won’t miss Bell, receiver Jarvis Landry did offer support for the back’s financial plea.
“Pay the man,” Landry said.
Jackson will announce his starting tackle today, but the Browns may have tipped their hand with a waiver claim. The team grabbed DL Anthony Zettel from the Lions and released backup center Aaron Neary. The move may signify that Austin Corbett, who has been starting at left guard, will now be the backup center with Joel Bitonio sliding back to guard and undrafted rookie Desmond Harrison starting at left tackle. ... Zettel had 61/2 sacks last season in Detroit.