PITTSBURGH — Le’Veon Bell sees the same script just about every week.
Antonio Brown requires extra attention from a safety who really wants to be in the box, ready to stop Bell in the running game. But the defense can’t leave Brown one-on-one in man coverage. So the safety backs up, giving the Steelers the option to call a run play for Bell or throw a quick pass to Brown while the corner is playing off.
This song-and-dance typically results in one or both players surpassing the 100-yard threshold. Brown and Bell can thank each other personally for that. And they do often, from the sideline, usually in the final seconds of a win.
“We make sure that we both know, ‘I had a big game because of you, you drawing a lot of attention, and vice versa,” Bell said. “I need him, and I feel the same way, that he needs me.”
And the Steelers need them to keep racking up yards all the way to the NFL record books.
Bell and Brown’s 2,572 combined scrimmage yards this season are by far the most of any duo in the NFL. The next closest is the New Orleans Saints‘ Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara at 2,149. Both Bell and Brown have a significant lead in the league rushing and receiving races, and they can become the third duo in NFL history to finish the season that way.
The first tailback-receiver duo to do it — Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith for the Cowboys in 1991 — is the standard that guard Ramon Foster says his teammates might one day match.
“If they can stick together, it’d be awesome if they could [reach that],” Foster said. “I don’t want to speak too soon, but if you give it time, it could be, absolutely.”
Brown’s 1,195 receiving yards are his most through 11 games of a season in his eight-year career. At age 29 and fresh off a $68 million contract extension, Brown has shown zero signs of slowing. Bell’s average of 3.9 yards per rush is his lowest since 2013, but he started slow coming off a missed training camp, and he’s dictating the pace of games. On his way to 981 rushing yards, he has helped the Steelers go 6-0 when he rushes 25 or more times. He’s also flirting with a 90-catch season.
The current pace would leave Brown with 1,748 receiving yards and Bell with 2,002 scrimmage yards (1,427 rushing), a total well short of their 2014 output of 3,926, an NFL record for a duo.
This year’s numbers compare favorably with the 1999 Indianapolis Colts (Edgerrin James, 1,553; Marvin Harrison, 1,663) and the 1991 Cowboys (Smith, 1,563; Irvin, 1,523), duos that led the rushing-receiving categories.
Brown and Bell will get every chance to reach that milestone, since 55.4 percent of the offense (393 touches) runs through these two.
“Most plays that we design have those guys at the forefront,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
Foster appreciates watching two elite players in their prime running through defenses consistently.
For Bell, it’s the mismatches he creates in the passing game. On his weekly radio show, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called Bell the ‘MVP’ of the passing game in the Steelers’ 31-28 win over the Packers because of his ability to help block and fade into the flat for 12 catches. He can win on the outside, too.
“If someone’s not there to cover Le’Veon when he has linebacker on him, that can become a little bit of a problem,” Foster said. “He can turn a 7-yard run into a 50-yard run. And you already know what AB can do against any coverage.”
Teammates have run out of superlatives for Brown, who reset his season’s statistical arc with 313 yards and five touchdowns the last two weeks — including an absurd helmet catch in the end zone and a toe-dragging, sideline catch in the final seconds of the Packers game that looked even more difficult.
“We say he’s the best in the world on the sideline, and he’s got to be because defenders are all over him,” Roethlisberger said.
Bell and Brown have been clear that winning trumps their numbers. But those two factors work together. At least one player has eclipsed 100 yards in all but two games this season, a big reason why the Steelers sit at 9-2.
Bell hopes to see that process play out for years.
“Around the league, you don’t have a lot of teams that have that balance,” Bell said. “AB can lead the league in receiving every year. I feel I can lead the league in rushing every year. We are both talented guys who are good at what we do.”