FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — It’s been a while since the Patriots have seen Le’Veon Bell.
The Pro Bowl running back refused to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers last season after the team placed the franchise tag on him for the second straight year. Bell never reported to Pittsburgh and sat out before hitting free agency this offseason.
That decision brought him to the AFC East as Bell signed a four-year, $52.5-million contract with the New York Jets in March. Sunday, Bell returns to Gillette Stadium, where the All-Pro running back will face the Patriots for the first time in two years.
Bell’s on a new team and in a new system. He also didn’t play a snap of football in 2018. That doesn’t mean he looks any different to Bill Belichick.
“Yeah, he looks pretty good. He looks fresh,” Belichick said. “Yeah, looks good. Catches the ball well, is very good in the open field. He’s a strong in-line runner.
“Bell’s clearly one of the top backs in the league,” the Patriots coach added. “Outstanding with the ball in his hands, great receiver, just a really hard matchup player and does an excellent job of breaking tackles. He’s a hard guy to get on the ground, whether he spins, jumps over guys, makes them miss in the open field, puts his shoulder down and runs through them.”
The first couple of times the Patriots took on Bell and the Steelers, the defense held its own against the dynamic running back, but both games were outliers. Bell’s first game against the Patriots came in 2013, his rookie season. He rushed for 74 yards on 16 carries as the Pats won, 55-31. In 2016, the defense held Bell to 3.8 yards per carry (81 rushing yards on 21 attempts). He also added 10 receptions for 68 yards. In that game, however, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn’t play and the contest wasn’t exactly competitive.
In the 2016 AFC Championship Game, Bell rushed for 20 yards on six carries before a groin injury caused him to miss the rest of the contest. The back’s best game against the Patriots was in 2017. Bell ran for 117 yards on 24 carries, scoring a touchdown. He also added five receptions for 48 yards. The Patriots escaped that game with a wild 27-24 win.
Bell has an interesting rushing style. He carries the ball almost standing upright. He’s so patient that sometimes it looks like he’s moving in slow motion. In these cases, he’s letting the play unfold in front of him and decides what hole to hit. Bell can hurt a team in an instant.
“Really, you just have to have good technique. He’s a patient runner,” said Pats defensive tackle Danny Shelton. “Guys who jump out of gaps are going to get beaten up. We really are focusing on doing techniques ... and contributing to the defense’s success.”
This season, in two games, Bell has rushed for 128 yards with the Jets, averaging 3.4 yards per carry. He also has caught 16 passes on 19 targets for 93 receiving yards and a touchdown. Last week, against Cleveland, he caught 10 passes in the Jets’ loss to Cleveland.
Against the Patriots, Bell has caught 65.5% of the passes thrown his way. The Patriots secondary, however, feels prepared for the versatile back since they get to practice against two pass-catching running backs every week in James White and Rex Burkhead.
“Honestly, we’re not going to play anybody that’s going to be a better route-runner than James and Rex,” safety Devin McCourty said. “There’s going to be guys that are as good, like Le’Veon Bell, but going against those guys — it’s tough.”
The Patriots know they can’t take him lightly.
“He’s a very explosive player,” Belichick said. “Yeah, if (a hole is) there, he’ll hit it. If not, he does an excellent job of setting the blockers up and making the defenders commit, and then finding space and going. You don’t see him running into the back of his blockers and running into a pile and things like that. He makes guys commit, and then he finds space and is able to get to it. He’s an excellent player.”