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Daily Focus: How the Steelers can survive Bell's four-game suspension

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 28: Le'Veon Bell #26 of the Pittsburgh Steelers carries the ball in front of Leonard Johnson #29 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second quarter at Heinz Field on September 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Can the Steelers survive during Le'Veon Bell's four-game suspension? One of Friday’s biggest headlines was Pittsburgh’s top rusher facing a four-game suspension for violation of the NFL’s drug policy. That’s a tough break for the Steelers given he was also suspended for the first two games of 2015, and after coming back managed just 305 snaps over six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Before going down, Bell was arguably the NFL’s top rusher, on pace to surpass his outstanding 2014 season which he finished as the second-highest-graded RB behind Marshawn Lynch. Over that span he forced 28 missed tackles in 138 touches while averaging a league-high 3.41 yards after contact per rush. Only Doug Martin graded better overall during the first eight weeks, and the difference was solely due to Martin’s work as a blocker.

Veteran DeAngelo Williams saw the bulk of the work in Bell’s absence last season, and that will likely be the case again if Bell indeed misses the first four weeks, although third-year player Fitzgerald Toussaint might also compete see playing time. From a rushing standpoint, Williams is a clear dropoff based on the last two seasons, but was still an admiral replacement in 2015. Over 200 carries and 715 snaps he produced his best rushing mark since 2008 and his overall grade was career-high (fifth-best among RBs). But at age 33, that performance isn’t necessarily sustainable – while Williams had one of the best years of his career in some aspects, he’s seen a decline in others, notably his ability to gain yards after contact, with an average of 2.2 YAC per rush over the last three seasons far below his career average of 2.9.

But at worst, Williams should still be at least average as a rusher, if not better than that. Where the Steelers actually improve is in pass protection – last season he was the only one of 62 qualifying RBs with a perfect pass blocking efficiency rating, allowing zero pressures in 63 pass blocking snaps. Either way, the Steelers will surely miss Bell’s production, but this is far from a season-killing suspension.

Arthur Jones' four-game suspension 

In other suspension news, the Indianapolis Colts will be without interior defender Arthur Jones for the first four weeks, but unlike the Steelers and Bell, this should mostly hurt the Colts from a depth perspective. Jones was already facing the challenge of returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of the entire 2015 regular season. And in his first season with the Colts in 2014, he graded below average in both pass rushing and run defense, ranking 110th out of 126 qualifying interior defenders overall. In response, the Colts invested heavily in their defensive line last offseason, notably bringing in in Kendall Langford from St Louis and drafting a pair of Stanford lineman, Henry Anderson and David Parry, both of whom graded extremely well during their final college season (Anderson was the highest-graded interior defender in the entire FBS in 2014). Parry had a rough rookie season at nose tackle, but Anderson and Langford were both well above average in their first season in Indianapolis – and the latter two are the players ahead of Jones on the depth chart.

Drafted in 2010 by the Ravens, Jones to this point has produced just one season of positive grades – his 2013 contract year that earned him a contract with the Colts. And this suspension makes Jones’ uphill battle even steeper. When he comes back he’ll likely be fighting for a spot in the rotation along with players such as Billy Wynn, T.Y. McGill, and Earl Okine — all three graded slightly below average last season, but were still better than what Jones put on the field in 2014.

Who should be the Bills' No. 2 and No. 3 WRs? 

Heading into the 2016 preseason, Sammy Watkins is firmly entrenched as the Buffalo Bills’ No.1 receiver, despite still recovering from offseason foot surgery. We’ve recently examined Watkins’ potential for a big season, if healthy, but what options do the Bills have behind him? Robert Woods and Chris Hogan were the team’s two main receivers behind Watkins in 2015, but both graded negatively in the passing game and Hogan departed the team this offseason (along with Percy Harvin). For Woods it was the worst season of his three-year career, in part due to a lack of elusiveness compared to his peers across the NFL. He gained 552 yards on 47 receptions, but forced only three missed tackles and averaged only 3.1 yards after the catch – both figures ranked in the bottom half of the league and weren’t far from his 2014 and 2013 marks. At his best Woods is a solid receiver – take a look at his 2014 week 12 performance vs the Jets for an example – but he hasn’t consistently played at that level.

Otherwise, the Bills are looking at a collection of players who each logged less than 100 snaps last season. Dezmin Lewis, Greg Salas, Marquise Goodwin, and Greg Little are among the players vying for playing time behind Watkins and Woods. Of those options, Little is the only one with significant playing time under his belt, but he posted a negative receiving grade in each of his first four seasons and didn’t see a single snap in 2015.

With that uncertainty at receiver, Buffalo will looking for a big season from TE Charles Clay, who signed a sizable free agent contract with the team last offseason. Clay was the team’s second leading pass catcher in 2015 after gaining 528 yards and breaking 16 tackles in 51 receptions. But his receiving grade ranked outside of the top 20 tight ends, in part due to five drops, which was good for the 14th-highest drop rate among 38 qualifying TEs.


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