Steelers plan to keep Bell on the field

The Steelers aren't making much headway in fixing a pass defense that slipped to 20th in the NFL and became their Achilles heel last season, but they have come up with a plan to keep Kendrell Bell, their wondrously talented linebacker, on the field in passing situations next season.

And the plan all depends on Bell.

"It all depends on his maturity level and understanding of the defense when he comes back for mini-camp," said a source close to the situation.

That source, as well as the coaching staff, holds the hope that Bell can play the middle of the field on third downs. That would allow the team to move Joey Porter back to his natural rush-end position along the four-man line.

The Steelers will initially take a look at that scenario and hope Bell shows enough of an improvement in his understanding of the system to make the move.

As a rookie in 2001, no one seemed to mind that Bell didn't have much of an understanding of the system. An inside linebacker, Bell wreaked enough havoc to win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.

In training camp last season, the Steelers moved Bell to rush end and Porter to middle linebacker in their 4-1-6 dime defense, and Porter played well enough to be named to the NFL's All-Pro team. Bell struggled with the down technique at camp, but showed enough that the Steelers are willing to consider the scenario "Plan B" for the coming season.

Bell didn't receive much of a chance to show his wares as a down lineman because of an early ankle injury that lingered throughout the season. The injury affected his play on run downs, too, but by the end of the season he'd regained his explosive form and even made a couple of key plays in pass defense in the playoff game against the Cleveland Browns.

"He was covering the wrong guy both times," the source said with a laugh, "but, yes, he did show improvement."

Whether Bell plays in the middle of the field or at rush end in the dime next season, the Steelers have decided to expand on their nickel package, which utilizes only five defensive backs as opposed to the six in the dime. In the nickel, both Bell and Porter would man the middle of the field behind four down linemen. Bell would replace the third safety – Mike Logan last season -- in such a scenario.

By Jim Wexell

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