There was a time when the Ravens would have celebrated holding Le’Veon Bell to 48 yards on 11 carries.
Not so long ago, he lived in their nightmares — those outside runs on which he’d wait and wait, then snap off a double-digit gain, or the pass routes on which he’d toy with some poor linebacker. As an All-Pro for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he played a starring role in some of the most painful losses in Ravens history.
So it took some getting used to when Bell showed up in Baltimore two months ago, not as a feared opponent but as a journeyman running back hoping to stick on a roster. The Ravens needed a running back, any running back, to fill in for the injured J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Bell needed a job.
“I started foaming at the mouth when they started calling me,” he said Tuesday in his first session with Baltimore reporters since he joined the team.
Bell’s career with the Ravens did not begin auspiciously — 17 carries for 34 yards, one catch for -1 yard in his first three games. When they set him up for one of his signature outside runs, he seemed to lack the quickness to capitalize. It was not clear he would last the season as the Ravens looked for fixes to their stagnant running game.
But Bell was still on the roster after the trade deadline and the Ravens’ bye week, and he played his best game for the team Sunday in a 34-31 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Five times the Ravens handed him the ball in short-yardage situations in the fourth quarter and overtime, and five times Bell delivered a first down or touchdown. He finished with the aforementioned 48 yards on 11 carries, not a vintage performance but a meaningful contribution.
“Each and every week, he’s been getting better,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “[He’s] getting a feel for the game, hitting holes a little harder, picking up first downs.”
In his postgame remarks, coach John Harbaugh made a point of complimenting Bell and fellow veteran running Devonta Freeman, saying, “We ran the ball to win the game at the end.”
Harbaugh reiterated that praise during his day-after news conference: “[Le’Veon] was hitting those holes, man. Just talking to him this week, he knew he would. He told me that. He goes, ‘I’m ready to go.’ These guys are pros. He knows how to carry the ball. When we were in situations [where] we needed yards, he got them for us. It was good to see.”
The last time Bell played like the dual-threat superstar we all remember was 2017, when he ran for 1,291 yards, snared 85 passes and was All-Pro for the Steelers.
“He ran me over on the sideline,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said, recalling the first time he matched up against Bell as a rookie. “That, I’ll never forget. Somebody was talking trash to me. I looked over, it was a coach. I was like, ‘Dang, even a coach is seeing it.’”
Bell was still just 25 years old.
Then, he sat out the entire 2018 season in protest of the Steelers’ decision to place the franchise tag on him for a second straight year. He became a free agent the next spring and signed a $52.5 million deal with the New York Jets.
Plenty of Ravens fans were disappointed he did not come to Baltimore at that point. But whatever Bell had left in the tank, he found little opportunity to show it for an offensively inept 7-9 team. He hurt his hamstring at the beginning of the 2020 season, and the Jets released him in October. He caught on as a backup for the Kansas City Chiefs but did not play in the AFC championship game or the Super Bowl.
Bell turned 29 in February, and he did not have an NFL home as the 2021 season approached. Enter his former AFC North nemesis, in desperate need of running back help after Dobbins and Edwards tore knee ligaments and Justice Hill tore his Achilles tendon.
“I had a couple calls; I wasn’t really pressed about it, up until the Ravens called, and then I felt like it was a great opportunity to come here and play,” he said. “Coach Harbaugh, he’s one of the better coaches in this league. He doesn’t get enough credit for a lot of things he’s done around this league. And then, obviously, playing with Lamar.”
Was it weird the first time the ex-Steeler walked in the door at the Ravens’ training facility in Owings Mills?
“You would think, but it really hasn’t been,” Harbaugh said, grouping Bell with another former Steeler, tackle Alejandro Villanueva. “When they get here, they’re Ravens. They’re into it. They’re part of the team. These guys are, like I said, pros. I think they’re enjoying being here, and we’re enjoying having them.”
The Ravens were always on Bell’s shortlist of desirable landing spots after he left the Steelers.
“This is an AFC North football team; they love running the ball here,” he said. “It’s something that I love doing. And it’s a great opportunity playing with Lamar. He’s a special type of player.”
He and Jackson needed weeks to nail down timing on mesh handoffs and other aspects of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s running schemes, but Bell said coaches “did a great job of not putting too much on my plate, just kind of letting me come in and get my feet wet.”
Many younger Ravens grew up idolizing the former All-Pro, not playing against him. Humphrey has been telling them they’re just now seeing the real Bell.
“I feel like he’s getting back in his stride,” the Pro Bowl cornerback said. “I definitely remember that All-Pro guy — at one point he was probably a top-15 player in the entire league — so to see him getting back to that, getting some carries, getting some touchdowns, it’s really good.”
Teammates enjoy Bell’s eccentricities, including his devotion to boxing as a training method. He sometimes shuffles his feet like a fighter and throws shadow punches during pregame warm-ups. He even worked out with Baltimore boxing champion Gervonta Davis.
“Any chance Le’Veon gets, he’s doing some bouncing or some boxing. He can’t sit still, really,” fellow running back Latavius Murray said. “He’s always doing that during breaks, in the locker room, warming up — it doesn’t matter. I think that’s something he definitely takes seriously, and I think it’s helped him, he said, a lot with his footwork and everything like that.”
Bell said he started taking boxing seriously at the end of last year and attends training sessions twice a week, often shortly after games. “Just to kind of get my hips loose,” he said. “It helps with my legs and conditioning, my mentality. It helps translate over to football with my footwork.”
If he feels at all uncomfortable with this new phase of his career, when he’s a guy trying to fit in rather than the focal point, he has not indicated it.
“I’m grateful for everything that has happened to me in my career,” he said. “I just want to continue to keep my head held high, keep working hard. That’s what I take pride in.”
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Line: Ravens by 7 ½