There were times last season when Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell would not come off the field. He'd play the entire game. He did it against the Bengals late last season and played all but one play in two other games against the Ravens and Giants. If the coaches wanted to give him a breather, he'd wave them off and remain on the field.
Things might be changing this season. Bell's usage declined in the first game against the Browns, and some of it had nothing to do with easing him back into the game after he missed training camp. For the opener in Cleveland, the Steelers had designed packages without Bell or any other running back on the field.
The Steelers went empty nine times, with four receivers and a tight end. In years past, the coaches wanted Bell on the field because they believed his versatility as a receiver helped the offense. But now it appears they are moving in another direction when they want to play with four receivers.
Bell played just 43 of the team's 60 offensive snaps Sunday. Rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster took Bell's place in those packages.
And even though Smith-Schuster didn't have a catch against the Browns, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expects more of the same in coming weeks.
"We've got a lot of guys we can get on the field," Roethlisberger said. "We want to be able to get JuJu on the field. That's what that does. It creates an opportunity to get him on the field to create even more of a mismatch problem. I think you'll see more of it because it was very good to us."
Bell said after practice Wednesday that he did not have any discussion with coaches about his usage before the Cleveland game. He said he'd like to play the entire game, or close to it, as he has in the past, but he is deferring to the coaches on their decision-making.
"Of course, I want to be out there every play. I'm just executing the game plan and doing what I'm told," Bell said.
Bell was not sure if he would be included in five-receiver sets in the future.
"However they plan to use me, I'll be available," Bell said. "I'll make sure I go out there and put everything on the line when I'm in the game, and do the best that I can."