Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Steelers wait again for RB Bell

The last thing the Pittsburgh Steelers wanted to begin the 2018 season was another distraction. After all, they had plenty of those last year and wanted to avoid any similar pitfalls this season.

But on Monday, six days before they open the season in Cleveland, running back Le’Veon Bell did not report to sign his franchise tender and skipped practice.

The expectations remain Bell will report this week, but the Steelers were disappointed he was not there Monday. General manager Kevin Colbert issued a statement saying as much.

“We’re disappointed Le’Veon Bell has not signed his franchise tender and rejoined his teammates,” Colbert said. “Coach (Mike) Tomlin and the coaching staff will continue to focus on preparing the players on our roster for our regular season opener on Sunday against the Browns.”

Team captain Maurkice Pouncey said Monday his absence would not be a distraction.

“I promise you it won’t be,” Pouncey said. “The team is so locked in and focused on what we have to do at hand this weekend. Whenever he comes, we’ll welcome him with open arms. Hopefully, he’s in shape and ready to run the football. It’s fine. He showed up last year at the same time. It’s totally fine, trust me.”

The Steelers play the opener in Cleveland, the same as they did last year when Bell rushed for 32 yards on 10 carries and had 10 catches for 46 yards.

Bell did not have a 100-yard rushing game until Week 4 in Baltimore last year. Bell has admitted he got off to a slow start and so have his coaches and teammates.

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said he will evaluate Bell’s conditioning level when he does report before he makes any determination about playing time against the Browns.

The Steelers won two of their first three games last year despite Bell’s slow start. Pouncey didn’t want to blame Bell for that, however.

“We can’t blame him for that,” Pouncey said. “I think the whole offense kind of started slow last year. To point out one person who wasn’t here is totally wrong. What if he had started on PUP and he started the season like that? We’d say it’s his fault? You can’t do that. We play as a team.”

The Steelers do have a viable backup plan this year, something they did not have last year. James Conner is entering his second season and is coming off a strong showing during the four preseason games. A year ago, Conner was injured throughout training camp and was ill-prepared for the start of the season.

“I feel like James has been in a great spot this entire camp,” veteran offensive lineman Ramon Foster said. “He’s taken all the reps, and we got (Stevan) Ridley who is an experienced, hard, downhill runner. One way or the other we’ll be fine in the run game. I’m focused on those guys over there. With what Conner has done this entire camp, I feel like we can make way with what we have. I’m excited about that young guy.”

Other than the Bell distraction, the Steelers are starting to get healthy after some starters were banged up in training camp.

Foster missed six weeks with a knee injury, but he practiced Monday and is on schedule to play Sunday. Strong safety Morgan Burnett and slot corner Mike Hilton also returned to practice Monday as did reserve tight end Xavier Grimble.

SERIES HISTORY: 131st regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series, 72-58. Steelers have won six consecutive and 10 of 11 overall since 2012. Steelers last lost to the Browns in Cleveland in 2014. The Steelers and Browns have met twice in the playoffs, with the Steelers winning both matchups in 1994 and 2002.