PITTSBURGH (AP) — Two snaps in, Le’Veon Bell knew he was done, that the groin injury that the Pittsburgh Steelers running back tried to ignore during his team’s run to the AFC championship game last January could be ignored no longer.
Bell tried to grind it out.
Emphasis on tried.
By the middle of the second quarter he was on the sideline for good, a chilly bystander as the New England Patriots ran away with a 36-17 victory on their way to yet another Super Bowl title.
“It sucked for me,” Bell said.
The rest of the short-handed Steelers too.
Eleven months later a rematch looms at Heinz Field when the Patriots (10-3) visit the AFC North champions on Sunday, a showdown that will find Pittsburgh’s “Killer B’s” on the field together against New England for the first time.
Martavis Bryant missed both games last season while serving a yearlong suspension. Ben Roethlisberger sat out a 27-16 regular-season home loss to the Patriots last fall while recovering from a knee injury.
Neither Bell nor Bryant played in the 2015 season opener in New England after running afoul of league policy.
This time around Pittsburgh has no health issues, no discipline issues and no excuses. The unit that spent a large portion of September and October searching for a rhythm has found it over the past month.
The Steelers are averaging 33.25 points over their past four games, including 39 last Sunday night against Baltimorethat clinched Pittsburgh’s third division title in four years and seemed to answer any lingering questions about Roethlisberger’s commitment level.
The 35-year-old who looked every bit his age while throwing five picks in a loss to Jacksonville that no longer looks as surprising as it did at the time became the first player in NFL history to throw for 500 yards three times when he lit up the NFL’s third-ranked pass defense for 506 and two touchdowns.
Roethlisberger just laughed Wednesday when asked if he needed to ice his right arm after throwing a franchise-record 66 times against the Ravens and downplayed the idea he had a point to prove after getting off to a slow start. His production relies heavily on the moving parts around him. And he knows it.
“I’m only going to be as good as the line is playing and receivers are catching,” Roethlisberger said. “When we’re all clicking, things are going for everybody.”
Of course, it helps when Roethlisberger has everybody at his disposal. That wasn’t the case in Foxborough in January when Roethlisberger found himself throwing to Cobi Hamilton and Sammie Coates, both of whom are no longer around.
It wasn’t even the case against the Ravens. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster watched at home wearing a helmetwhile serving a one-game suspension for an illegal blindside hit against Cincinnati’s Vontaze Burfict. It was a learning experience for Smith-Schuster in more ways than one.
While Smith-Schuster pledged to be more mindful going forward and stressed the taunting penalty he drew for standing over Burfict is not who he is, he also became acutely aware of how effective the Steelers can be without him.
Roethlisberger connected with seven players during Pittsburgh’s eighth straight victory. And while Antonio Brown put up his weekly eye-popping numbers (11 receptions for 213 yards), tight end Jesse James caught a career-high 10 passes.
Even fullback Rosie Nix got in on it , pulling down the first touchdown of his career in the fourth quarter when he made a grab in the end zone over Baltimore safety Tony Jefferson.
“I was like, ‘Everybody is eating, where’s my plate?'” Smith-Schuster said. Ben is on fire right now. He’s hot. For him to throw 66 balls in a single game like that, 500 yards, and everybody gets their touches, I mean, it makes it even tougher just to watch the game. I want 100 yards, 50 yards, I’ll take that.”
It may have to be if the Steelers want to lock down home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs. Roethlisberger showed his frustration with a lack of playmakers after losing the championship game.
The Steelers responded by making Brown the highest-paid wide receiver in the league, drafting Smith-Schuster in the second round of the draft and welcoming the talented if mercurial Bryant back into the fold.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick has built a Hall of Fame career by finding one option on the other team and doing what it takes to neutralize him.
Even he’s aware that Pittsburgh has as many options as any team in the league. He called Bell, the league’s leading rusher, “almost impossible to stop.”
When asked if he considers Brown a legitimate Most Valuable Player contender, Belichick isn’t sure Brown is the only MVP candidate in Pittsburgh’s huddle.
“He’s a great player,” Belichick said. “Give it to Bell too. Give it to Roethlisberger too if you want too. They’re all really good.”
And primed to take a step that’s been elusive for the better part of a decade.
“Guys like JuJu and Martavis and the tight ends, myself, got to make plays,” Bell said. “Can’t just be 84 all the time in the passing game. Got to be other guys too. I feel like we’ve got the playmakers to do it. We’ve got to do it.”
NOTES: CB Joe Haden was limited in his return to practice after missing more than a month with a fractured left leg. Haden remains uncertain about whether he’ll play. .. DE Stephon Tuitt (illness), TE Vance McDonald (shoulder) and CB Coty Sensabaugh (shoulder) did not practice. … LB Tyler Matakevich (shoulder) was limited.