Ever since the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Le'Veon Bell in the second round four months ago, he was the favorite to be the team's starting running back this season. Fans knew it. The media knew it. And, judging by coach Mike Tomlin's comments regarding Friday night's preseason opener, he is finally starting to acknowledge it publicly, too.
"We are going to play the ones 10-12 snaps. Don't be surprised if you see Le'Veon getting some snaps with those guys," Tomlin said. "I think he has earned that. I think how he is running the ball speaks for itself."
A solid training camp has put Bell in position to beat out Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer for the starting running back job. He can win the spot with strong performances in the next couple of preseason games, beginning with Friday night's game against the New York Giants at Heinz Field.
Relying on a rookie running back is rare for the Steelers. The last time a rookie led Pittsburgh in rushing was Tim Worley in 1989. That's three years before Bell was even born.
Rookie running backs, in general, haven't produced as much recently. In the previous four seasons, only three rookies have gained more than 1,000 rushing yards: LeGarrette Blount (2010), Alfred Morris (2012) and Doug Martin (2012). The only rookie running back to crack 1,000 yards in the Steelers' 80-year history was Franco Harris in 1972. That's the same year Tomlin was born.
Bell, though, is clearly the most talented running back the Steelers have. The real drama at running back is who will be backing up Bell. The Steelers might not keep both Redman and Dwyer, especially when you consider Bell could be a three-down back and LaRod Stephens-Howling serves as a change-of-pace backup.
The Steelers' ground game has been suffering a steady decline. Pittsburgh has gone from being No. 11 in the NFL in rushing 2010 to No. 14 in 2011. Last year, the Steelers finished No. 26.
That's why all eyes in Pittsburgh will be on Bell this preseason.