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Steelers’ Bell in serious doubt Saturday vs. Ravens

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PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ celebration of their first AFC North Division championship in four years was somewhat muted by the knee injury to the player they voted their MVP last week, halfback Le’Veon Bell.

He was hurt in the third quarter by Cincinnati safety Reggie Nelson’s low open-field tackle in the third quarter. Mike Tomlin said it was a hyperextended knee that appears to have no major structural damage. However, Bell’s availability for Saturday night’s playoff game against Baltimore at Heinz Field has to be in serious doubt.

Tomlin and Nelson had an animated discussion on the field after the game. It was assumed to be over Nelson’s low tackle that injured Bell in the third quarter. However, Tomlin said he had no problem with the tackle, calling it legal.

“I guess a teammate told him that I said something regarding him,” Tomlin said. “That’s untrue. Ask him. I have a lot of respect for Reggie Nelson. He’s a good player.”

Nelson declined comment on the issue.

Without the dual threat halfback who rushed for 1,361 yards and caught another 83 passes for 854 yards, the Steelers’ offense changes dramatically. They will plug in Josh Harris, an undrafted rookie who was on their practice squad until Nov. 18 when they signed him after veteran LeGarrette Blount walked out on them during a game at Tennessee.

Harris has nine carries for 16 yards and no receptions. They will team him with another rookie, scatback Dri Archer, a third-round pick who has been a disappointment. He has 10 carries for 40 yards and seven receptions for 23 yards.

More likely, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to carry the offense, at least through their first game against Baltimore.

“It’s tough,” Roethlisberger said of the injury to Bell. I’m not sure what the issue is right now or how he’s feeling, or how bad it is. I know if there is a chance that he can be out there he’s going to be because that’s how he is.”

A bright spot for the Steelers has been the improved play from their defense the past two games. They forced three turnovers against the Bengals and have nine sacks in the past two games.

“The defense played huge all day,” Roethlisberger noted. “We didn’t do enough offensively, we didn’t make enough plays and our defense bailed us out. It was fun to watch our defense play at a very high level and get turnovers.”

Cornerbacks Brice McCain and William Gay tied for the team lead with three interceptions after McCain’s two Sunday. Neither cornerback opened the season as a starter. Four of their six interceptions were returned for touchdowns.

On the other side of the ball, wide receiver became the first Steeler to lead the NFL. He totaled 1,698 yards receiving on 129 catches, the second-most in NFL history. He also set a Steelers record with his 13th TD catch.

Wide receiver Martavis Bryant’s eighth touchdown catch was second most by a rookie in Steelers history. Louis Lipps caught nine in 1984.

Bell’s 83 receptions are 32 more than the previous Steelers high by a running back. John L. Williams caught 51 in 1994.

REPORT CARD VS. BENGALS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B — Early drops and some misfires by Ben Roethlisberger prevented what could have been a bigger early lead. Nevertheless, Roethlisberger completed 24 of 38 passes for 317 yards and two touchdowns. He was not sacked but he did throw a poor interception at the Bengals’ 15 that breathed life into Cincinnati, which followed with a long fourth-quarter touchdown drive to cut the lead to three.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: F — For the third straight game, the Steelers did not run effectively. While Le’Veon Bell did leave in the third quarter with his knee injury, he managed just 20 yards on eight carries before he left (although he did catch six passes for 80 yards). In all, the Steelers had their worst rushing performance of the season with 29 yards on 18 carries.

–PASS DEFENSE: B-plus — Andy Dalton threw two touchdown passes and was 27 of 38 for 244 yards, but cornerback Brice McCain intercepted him twice — one saving a score, the other leading to a touchdown. Also, cornerback Antwon Blake stripped A.J. Green of the ball after a reception in field goal range in the fourth quarter and recovered the fumble. The Steelers had three sacks on the normally difficult-to-sack Dalton.

–RUSH DEFENSE: C – Jeremy Hill rushed 23 times for 100 yards but overall the Steelers did OK against a good Cincinnati run game. They held the Bengals to 116 yards on 29 carries and no touchdowns.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus — Antonio Brown got things off to a bang, returning Cincinnati’s first punt for a touchdown of 71 yards, his first that way this season. Shaun Suisham made two short field goals, although one from 25 glanced in off the left post, and Cincinnati’s Mike Nugent made one (39) and missed one (50). The otherwise excellent performance was marred by a fake punt that did not fly when punter Brad Wing’s pass was intercepted.

–COACHING: B — Suddenly, the game has NOT passed Dick LeBeau by. The 77-year-old defensive coordinator looks pretty good after taking a patched-up defense and improving it steadily as the season wore on through injuries and benchings. Mike Tomlin ordered a questionable fake punt from Cincinnati’s 45 on fourth-and-9 with 5:50 left in the game and Pittsburgh leading by 3. It could have cost him the game when punter Brad Wing’s pass was intercepted and the Bengals took over at their 41. But that potential winning or tying drive was snuffed out with A.J. Green’s fumble at the Steelers 30.


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