Holdout RB Le'Veon Bell misses the Pittsburgh Steelers more than the Steelers miss Bell. In case anyone was doubting as much, consider what head coach Mike Tomlin told ESPN's Dianna Russini about the situation prior to Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.
"We haven't spent a lot of time focused on it because it's not in our control," Tomlin said of Bell's holdout, after praising the work of fill-in RB James Conner, who ranks second in the NFL with 599 rushing yards and third with nine TDs. "Those decisions are Le'Veon's. We need volunteers, not hostages."
"So we're focused on the guys that are here and working — and James is definitely in that mix. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Now consider those pointed remarks were made shortly before Conner terminated Baltimore Sunday with 163 total yards and a touchdown on 29 handles in the Steelers' 23-16 victory. It marked Conner's third consecutive 100-rushing yard game, this time against a Baltimore 'D' that entered Week 9 ranked first overall. He is the fastest player in Steelers history to reach 10 touchdowns in a season.
Conner, who has eight explosive rushes through eight games (Bell totaled three in 15 regular-season games last season), has ably filled in as the first-place Steelers' feature back. They're ranked No. 8 in the NFL in scoring, averaging 3 points more than they did a season ago, when Bell was in the same role as Conner.
Meantime, Bell, who was originally set to earn $14.5 million on the franchise tag this season, has forfeited more than $7 million thus far while holding out. And reports Sunday indicate that the Steelers can now use the transition tag on Bell, giving themselves the chance to match any offer the 26-year-old back were to receive on the open market while committing $9-10 million, far less than they were willing to pay on this year's one-year tender, in 2019.
Other reports indicate Pittsburgh didn't receive calls from teams interested in the disgruntled back prior to the trade deadline. Bell told ESPN last month that he intends to play this season and took out a loss-of-value insurance policy knowing that the club could use the transition tag next offseason.
But the clock's ticking on Bell earning an accrued season and ensuring the Steelers don't use the franchise tag for a third consecutive year. He has until Nov. 13 to report or he can't play at all. Of course, the longer his holdout persists, the likelihood of playing anything but second fiddle to Conner upon his return decreases.