- Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Senior NFL Writer
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If the Pittsburgh Steelers want to score 30 points per game this season, those efforts just got easier.
RB Le'Veon Bell's suspension reduction from three games to two gives the offense more versatility and alleviates early-season pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger to handle the offensive load for an extended period.
Bell will be back for Week 3 at the St. Louis Rams, ready to show off his noticeable added explosion. It's only training camp, but Bell looks leaner and says he's in the best shape of his life. The thought of Pittsburgh waiting three games to see Bell on the field made training camp one big tease.
Roethlisberger has two weeks to get the offense clicking to the point where, when Bell comes back, he doesn't have to be a savior, but rather a spark.
DeAngelo Williams is a capable back. Josh Harris and Dri Archer are capable backups. They aren't Bell, who opens up the offense for others because of his ability to catch passes and run for tough yards. Bell's 83 catches last season were the league's second-most from the running back position, behind Matt Forte. Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley's quick passing game is better when there's a good dump-off pass available. Not that Williams & Co. can't handle that, but Bell is highly skilled in this area. He's also effective on wheel routes.
The Steelers can prep both Bell and Williams for heavy workloads while having clarity on this issue, moving on with a clear-cut plan in place. That plan should involve getting Williams ready for 12 to 15 carries per game in Weeks 1-2 while giving young receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton more opportunities in the passing game alongside Antonio Brown.
The Steelers' first three opponents (New England, San Francisco, St. Louis) all finished in the top 14 in rushing defense last season. Fighting for tough yards all three weeks without Bell would have been exhausting, even if Williams played well. Bell's presence against the Rams will provide much-needed depth at that moment.
Coming off his best statistical season with 4,952 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, Roethlisberger should be well-equipped to handle the offense without a key player. But several recent observers of Roethlisberger, from Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to former teammate Ryan Clark, point out that the QB is thriving in part because this is his best supporting cast. He doesn't have to do too much. Bell's presence simply makes the offense run smoothly.
Save injuries, the offense will have that luxury for 14 regular-season games.