WITH (ANOTHER) RECORD-SETTING DAY FROM THEIR STAR RUSHER, THE STEELERS SHOWED THEY HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN IN NEW ENGLAND
LE'VEON (JUICE) BELL was standing outside the showers in the cramped visitors' locker room at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, a towel around his waist and a smile on his face. While devouring several orange sections, the Steelers' running back with the original style and the unoriginal nickname was happy to answer a few questions. Yes, he has met Franco Harris, who before the start of the postseason had held the team's single-game playoff record of 158 rushing yards for 41 years—a mark Bell had just exceeded for the second time in eight days. No, they haven't discussed the similarities in their running styles. Harris, like Bell, was a big back whose sweet feet belied his size. Where Harris was unusual, Bell is breathtakingly unorthodox. He slows, and often stops, at the line of scrimmage, to conduct a bit of unhurried recon, surveying the defense to divine where a crease might appear. If you didn't know better, you'd worry the man might be narcoleptic.
"That's a good thing, right?" says Bell, hearing his style described as unique. "It works for me."
His performance in Pittsburgh's 18--16 AFC divisional playoff win over the Chiefs—170 yards on 30 carries—was lipstick on a pig of a game. On the bright side, a new Killer B was minted: to offensive stars Bell, wideout Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, add—for this week, at least—kicker Chris Boswell. His NFL postseason single-game-record six field goals (on six attempts) salvaged victory on a night of serial red zone breakdowns by the Steelers.
They will need touchdowns, of course, to have a chance in Sunday's AFC championship at New England. The Patriots yielded 15.6 points per game this season, fewest in the NFL, though they've not faced an attack as potent as the one they'll see on Sunday. (In their 27--16 win in Pittsburgh in Week 7, Roethlisberger was out with an injured left knee.) Brown will renew acquaintances with cornerback Malcolm Butler, with whom he filmed a clever Visa commercial in October. In that spot, cornerback shadows receiver through a hotel and into the street, bats down car keys tossed by a valet, then intercepts a pizza ordered by AB. Brown, who had 108 receiving yards against Kansas City, further ensured that he would be a trending topic this week with a curious decision he made immediately after the game.
In a Facebook Live video from the bowels of Arrowhead, Brown captured the bedlam and euphoria of the winning locker room. Shortly after the wideouts pose for a group shot, Bell enters the picture, proclaiming "Juice Loose! Business boomin', like always!" Brown keeps the camera rolling during the team prayer and a blunt oration about the Pats from coach Mike Tomlin, who points out that "we spotted those a------s a day and a half—they played yesterday, our game got moved to tonight." (Sunday's kickoff was pushed back seven hours because of Winter Storm Jupiter.) "We're gonna touch down [in Pittsburgh] at 4 o'clock in the f------ morning. So be it. We'll be ready for their ass."
At exactly the same moment Tomlin is directing his players to "keep it low profile," Brown is training his phone on his own beaming face, exulting that he's up to 25,000 viewers. An unseen player shouts, "Keep it cool on social media! This is about us, and nobody else." Not exactly. By the following morning, more than one million Facebook viewers had seen Brown's video.
Bell, too, is blowing up. A two-star recruit out of Groveport (Ohio) Madison High, he was rated by one scouting service as the country's 211th best running back, and only got a full ride to Michigan State after a sales pitch from his high school principal. Three seasons later Bell rushed for 1,793 yards and declared for the draft. While his NFL.com draft report knocked him for "subpar vision" that prevented him "from seeing cut-back lines," it did flatter him with a comparison with LeGarrette Blount, with whom he'll be reunited in Foxborough.
With Bell emerging as the, well, Bell cow, the Steelers cut Blount on Nov. 18, 2014, and two days later the Patriots picked him up. While there were certainly hard feelings between Blount and Tomlin, Blount and Bell got along just fine. There they were, in fact, in the same police report from August 2014. Blount was a passenger when Bell was pulled over in a Pittsburgh suburb. Police found a small bag of marijuana in the glove compartment. Bell shared with them that he'd smoked two hours earlier. Upon learning they intended to cite him for driving under the influence, he told the cops—in a line that could've been lifted from an episode of Ballers—"I didn't know you could get a DUI for being high." You can. He did.
After serving a two-game suspension for that infraction, Bell was dinged another four games (a penalty later reduced to three) for missing a series of drug tests in late 2015 and early '16. In his first game back this season he detonated for 144 yards on 18 carries against the Chiefs. In his last eight games he has averaged a staggering 146.5 yards on the ground, including 167 on 29 carries in a wild-card win over the Dolphins.
"And he can catch passes out of the backfield," adds center Maurkice Pouncey. "This guy is special. Every day in practice he does something that makes you say, 'Wow, that was amazing.'"
Bell deflected all praise from his hogs back at them, and in the direction of Brown. "AB's such a threat on the outside," he said, "he makes those safeties a little nervous about coming up in the box."
He described the field goal fest as "a total team effort," which is what the Steelers must come up with at Gillette if they are to play in their ninth Super Bowl next month. Regardless of how it goes, whether the postgame mood in the visitors' locker room is festive or funereal, don't expect to see it on Facebook.