Bell was used Wednesday at defensive end, the same position he was learning last year before an injury disrupted his season.
Of course, the ankle sprain lingered throughout the season, putting a crimp in not only Bell's experimental move from linebacker to defensive end on passing downs, but in the Steelers' defense as a whole.
"It's virtually impossible to replace him," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "He's a dynamic player, probably a one-of-a-kind type."
Bell's absences obviously hurt the Steelers. They were 2-3 when he didn't play and 9-3-1 when he did. Even when healthy, Bell was taken off the field on passing downs and the Steelers suffered. They finished 27th in the NFL with a 43.6 percent conversion rate on third down. The previous year, the Steelers were 7th in the league after allowing 34.2 percent of third downs to be converted.
"We want him to be on the field for three downs," Coach Bill Cowher said of Bell, who's better as a blitzer than in coverage. So the task of pounding the proverbial square peg into a round hole began this week with Bell moving back to rush end in the dime.
"We took a look at it and now we have to talk about it with the coach," said Lewis. "I know [Cowher] has told everyone he wants to have [Bell] on the field more. He talked to me about developing a nickel package. That's what I'm doing right now."
Last year, the Steelers wanted to use more nickel alignments but didn't have the adjunct packages to go along with it, and that's one of Lewis' primary jobs this off-season.
"There are a number of different schemes we're mulling around," he said. "Maybe a 4-2-5, a 3-3-5. You'll see them out here in practice. I'm thinking we'll maybe gravitate more towards the nickel."
Has Lewis ruled out using Bell as the drop linebacker in the traditional 4-1-6 dime?
"We haven't ruled anything out yet," Lewis said.
As the rush end in the dime at Wednesday's practice, Bell was suckered inside on an outside sweep, was held by Marvel Smith and, on the third and final rep, raced past rookie free agent tackle Jack Fadule to sack quarterback Tim Levcik.
"They're just trying new things to see if I've gotten comfortable with playing outside," Bell said. "Right now we're getting the coverage thing squared away a lot more because teams are figuring ‘they're just going to use him as a rusher instead of a cover guy' so right now it's more coverage than anything."
"It's not difficult," he said. "I told them I'd play anything."
Bell's ankle is 100 percent healthy and he's trying to lose "about 10 pounds" from his current 255 pounds. Bell also said he'd like nothing more than to remain at linebacker, in the middle of the field, when the Steelers use their dime package.
"I would love to but the thing is that I have to get a lot more comfortable with it. I'm familiar with the
coverage's and things like that, but it's different when you're in the game and everything's flashing before your eyes. That's what I have to improve upon."
The Steelers will continue to experiment with Bell as a defensive end and as a linebacker in new nickel packages this spring, and the 2001 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year is excited about the chance.
"It's always good for me to be on the field," he said. "And it looks like coach is going to give me that opportunity."
NOTES – The Steelers signed two-fifths of their draft class yesterday when fourth-round pick Ike Taylor and seventh-round pick J.T. Wall agreed to multi-year contracts. Terms of the deals were not disclosed. ... The Steelers worked out six-year veteran Calvin Collins (6-2, 310) at guard and center Wednesday. Collins was a starting guard for the Atlanta Falcons from 1997-2000. He played for the Minnesota Vikings in 2001 and was with the Houston Texans last year.
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Steelers begin work on third-down packages
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