Bell’s presence couldn’t hurt team

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PITTSBURGH — Aw, who needs Le’Veon Bell, right?

That’s been the prevailing sentiment lately as Bell’s contract holdout continues with no end or logic in sight. His absence has coincided with some record-setting work by replacement James Conner.

In last Sunday’s game against Cleveland, Conner piled up 212 yards from scrimmage. He became the first Steelers running back to rush for at least 100 yards and two touchdowns in three consecutive games.

He’s the only one on an all-time roster that includes Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis and, yes, even Tom “The Bomb” Tracy.

Conner has been impressive. His numbers so far this season top those posted by Bell last season.

But the operative words in the previous sentence are “so far.” Conner is in his second NFL season. His rookie season, which had a much lighter workload, ended two games early because of a knee injury that required surgery.

Conner only carried the ball 32 times last year. He didn’t catch a pass and was only targeted once in his limited role.

He’s been a workhorse this year, carrying the ball 127 times and catching 31 passes on 41 targets.

He’s obviously been productive, too, with a smashing running style that either makes tacklers miss or simply blasts through them.

Today’s game in Baltimore marks the halfway point of the season. Eight games to go, and then the playoffs start. The Steelers expect to be in the postseason.

That’s a lot of work for Conner, especially when the weather deteriorates and running the ball often becomes a better option than passing.

This is a concern because there’s very little depth behind Conner. Stevan Ridley has 10 carries for 30 yards. He was lifted from last Sunday’s game when he fumbled the ball after catching a pass. The Steelers are his fifth team in six seasons.

Jaylen Samuels is a rookie who has run the ball four times in the NFL. The Steelers’ No. 2 rusher is Ben Roethlisberger, whose quarterback sneaks and scrambles have amounted to 44 yards in the first seven games.

If anything happens to Conner, the Steelers probably won’t have much of a running game.

Bell is a royal pain in the neck, but he would also be a formidable insurance policy to have on the sideline.

Elsewhere:

n There was much consternation when Pitt defensive back Damarri Mathis celebrated a play with a gesture Friday night at Virginia Tech.

Some people thought Mathis was miming the shooting of a machine gun. If that had been the case, it would have been in the worst possible taste, given the tragic events that unfolded last week at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Mathis and Pitt maintained he was imitating a dance move from a popular rap video.

He’s a vote for the latter explanation. While his movements could have been perceived as firing a machine gun, it isn’t likely. You could even make a case that he looked like he was playing air guitar.

The video is all over the Internet, so check for yourself. If someone hadn’t suggested the machine gun angle, how many people would have perceived it that way?

Maybe it was too close for comfort given the rawness still prevalent from the horrific shooting incident, but it seems unlikely Mathis intended any malice.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.

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