PITTSBURGH -- In a year in which the Pittsburgh Steelers could become the first team in the 82-year history of the NFL to have a player finish among the top two in rushing, receiving and passing yardage, Le'Veon Bell was voted Steelers Most Valuable Player by his teammates.
"My vote was Antonio Brown," said Bell. "But obviously Ben (Roethlisberger) was a guy who could have won it. The offensive line really deserves it. Those guys have done everything. Me, Ben or A.B. we can’t do anything without those guys. I watch the way those guys work. I watch the way those guys practice. I watch the way they bond, how close they are, the way they interact with each other. Their relationship makes us go. They’re a young offensive line, continually getting better and obviously making us the players we are. Guys like me, A.B. (and) Ben we are going to be in the papers, on ESPN and things like that, but obviously you can’t do anything without the guys up front. I’m not just including the left guard, left tackle, center, right guard (and) right tackle. I’m talking tight ends (and) fullbacks. Those guys pay heed too and I need all those guys to do what I do. I need those guys more than they need me. I’m just glad to be a part of this moving in the right direction and being a Pittsburgh Steeler."
With one regular-season game to go, Bell has compiled a franchise-record 2,115 yards from scrimmage, and has also set team marks for a running back with 77 receptions for 774 yards.
Bell is second in the NFL with 1,341 yards rushing and is one of four players in NFL history to record at least 1,300 rushing yards and 750 receiving yards in a season. The others are Marshall Faulk, Steven Jackson, and Brian Westbrook.
Bell also evoked another legendary name this season, that of Walter Payton, whom Bell matched with three consecutive games of at least 200 yards from scrimmage. Because of that, Bell's teammates call him "Little Payton."
"They do," Bell said. "They call me 'Little Walter Jr.' Pounce (Maurkice Pouncey) and Ramon (Foster) started that. Even with things like that those guys are silly. But they really mean that. They really think of me as a player like that, a running back of that caliber.
"When your offensive linemen believe in you like that, as a runner, it makes your job that much easier because you know those guys are going to put it all on the line for you. They are going to give you everything they have so you can get yardage, so you can get touchdowns, whatever it may be. And that’s what you need. Every team in the NFL doesn’t have an O-line like that and I’m just proud. I’m happy. I’m thankful that I got put in the situation that I’m in. I’m in a great situation for a great organization, great team, great coaches, great fans. I can’t forget those. I’m happy to be part of Steelers Nation."
Bell's day got better last night when he was named to his first Pro Bowl. He was selected along with teammates Brown, Pouncey, Roethlisberger and Lawrence Timmons.
Brown leads the NFL with 122 receptions and 1,570 receiving yards. This is his third Pro Bowl selection.
Pouncey, the Steelers' center, was named for the fourth time.
Roethlisberger is second in the NFL with 4,635 passing yards and was named to the Pro Bowl for the third time.
Timmons, whose 130 tackles doubles the 65 of the Steelers' second-leading tackler, Mike Mitchell, was named to the first Pro Bowl of his eight-year career.
The past three Steelers Super Bowl teams had something in common: an unknown defensive back who became known as a special-teams killer.
This year, that unknown could become Ross Ventrone.
Born and raised in nearby Scott Township, Ventrone grew up watching Chidi Iwuoma and then Anthony Madison help the Steelers win championship rings as elite gunners and kickoff coverage men. Ventrone has that same crazed look about him on the field of late.
"It's awesome," Ventrone said of making plays in a playoff-like atmosphere at Heinz Field. "I grew up here and watched these guys play, and to go on this playoff run is just incredible."
Ventrone didn't exactly pay attention to the elite gunners of the championship heyday, because "they don't feature special teams on TV as much as they should." But they featured his guy.
"My guy?" Ventrone repeated. "Troy. Obviously."
Ventrone said he's always grown out his hair, a la Troy Polamalu, and that's whom Ventrone seems to be channeling when the stocky safety works his way down the field to rock return men.
Ventrone did it twice against the Chiefs. Although neither hit resulted in an immediate tackle, the return men gained little as the rest of the Steelers coverage unit swarmed.
Ventrone was called up on Oct. 11 to replace an injured Shamarko Thomas as a gunner on the punt team. Ventrone played the next day against Cleveland and made two coverage tackles, and then made two more tackles the following week against Houston and one the next week against Indianapolis.
Inactive for two games with a hamstring injury, Ventrone again returned to replace Thomas on the punt team opposite Antwon Blake. The two gunners are helping the Steelers compile their best defensive punt-coverage average -- 8.2 yards -- since 2008 (6.2).
Both the Steelers' punt and kickoff-coverage units rank 13th in the league, the highest both have ranked together since the 2008 units ranked first (kickoff) and fourth (punt).
"Coach Danny Smith breaks down every possible scenario for us and gets us ready for every return we're going to see," Ventrone said. "So I just feel very prepared knowing what's coming at me, as all of us do, and just running down and being able to dissect returns. We know what we're getting before it happens. And obviously we have a lot of speed on our coverage units."
Darrius Heyward-Bey, NFL veteran of three teams, got some feedback for his work on the kickoff team from the head man himself, Mike Tomlin, who walked into the locker room and complimented Heyward-Bey for coming off a block to tackle Knile Davis on the opening kickoff of the second half.
"He's big on that stuff because I'm a white shirt," said Heyward-Bey. "I'm an offensive guy and I'm on special teams. He likes my attitude out there, and I've made a few plays the last couple of weeks."
The conversation with the speedy veteran turned into a worthwhile Q&A session.
Q: Do you have a defender's mentality?
DHB: "I have a do-whatever-we-gotta-do-to-win mentality. I've only been in the playoffs one time and I'm all about winning, and I feel like this team can do it. I go all out."
Q: Why do you think this team can do it?
DHB: "We just have the pieces, man. We have a good family of guys. We have the head coach. We have the owners. We've got the training staff, the equipment staff."
Q: So you like the bond here?
DHB: "Oh I love it. I love it. It's a true team."
Q: More so than you've seen previously?
DHB: "Yeah. My time at Indy was great. I thought they were a close group, but this is just a step above."
Q: Oakland wasn't close?
DHB: "No, we were a close group of guys because we were all the same age. The bonding of players was great, but when you have different coaches every year you can't bring that all together."
Q: What's this coach doing right?
DHB: "He's very honest. He's an honest man. He shows his emotions when things are good, when things are bad, when things are even keel. He brings that each and every day and you've got to respect that."
Q: Coming into the locker room and complimenting you on doing a little thing well, is that part of it?
DHB: "Yeah. He also lets you know when you don't do well. He's a very honest man, so you try to go out there and prove yourself each and every week."