Le’Veon “Juice” Bell was standing outside the showers in the cramped visitors locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, a towel around his waist and a smile on his face. While devouring several orange slices, the running back with the original style and the unoriginal nickname was happy to answer a few questions.
Yes, he has met Franco Harris, who until recently held Pittsburgh’s single-game playoff record of 158 rushing yards—a mark Bell had just exceeded for the second time in a week. No, they haven’t discussed the similarities in their running styles. Harris, like Bell, was a big back whose sweet feet belied his size. Where Harris was unusual, Bell is breathtakingly unorthodox. He slows, and often stops, at the line of scrimmage, there to conduct a bit of unhurried recon; to survey the defense and divine where a crease might appear. If you didn’t know better, you’d worry the man might be narcoleptic.
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“That’s a good thing, right?” says Bell, hearing his style described as completely unique. “It works for me.”
His jaw-dropping performance in the Steelers’ 18–16 divisional playoff win over the Chiefs—170 yards on 30 carries—was lipstick on a pig of a game that was artless and anticlimactic—the opposite of an instant classic (like the game that happened just before this one). On the bright side, a new “Killer B” was minted: along with offensive stars Bell, wideout Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, add—for this week, at least—kicker Chris Boswell. His NFL postseason record six field goals on six attempts salvaged the victory on a night Pittsburgh experienced serial breakdowns inside the 20-yard line.
They will need touchdowns, of course, to have a chance at beating the Patriots in Sunday’s AFC championship in Gillette Stadium. Tom Brady, a proven Steeler killer, has won nine of his 11 starts against Pittsburgh, including all four matchups at his home field.
Despite the midseason trade of Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins to the Browns, the Patriots yielded a stingy 15.6 points per game this season, fewest in the NFL. That said, they’ve not faced a one-two punch as potent as the one they’ll see this Sunday (In their 27–16 win in Pittsburgh in Week 7, the Patriots faced QB Landry Jones rather than Roethlisberger, who missed that game with an injured left knee.)
Brown will renew acquaintances with New England cornerback Malcolm Butler, with whom he filmed a clever Visa commercial this past offseason. In that spot, the cornerback shadows the receiver through a hotel and into the street, batting down car keys tossed by a valet, then intercepting a pizza ordered by Brown. But Brown further ensured that he would be a trending topic this week with a curious decision he made immediately after the game.
“Got my bag o’ oranges, it’s time to juice it,” Brown responds. So far, so good.
But, in what feels like an intrusion and a betrayal of his teammates’ trust, Brown keeps the camera rolling during the team prayer followed by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s blunt oration, in which the coach points out that “we spotted those a–holes a day and a half—they played yesterday, our game got moved to tonight.” Sunday’s kickoff in Kansas City was pushed back seven hours on account of Winter Storm Jupiter. “We’re gonna touch down [at the Pittsburgh airport] at four o’clock in the f—— morning. So be it. We’ll be ready for their a–.”
Tomlin is 2–5 against New England as the Steelers’ coach, which explains, in part, his animosity towards them, and while this is a garden-variety put-down, to be sure, New England’s players will be hearing about this all week—as motivation from their own coaches.
At exactly the same moment Tomlin is directing his players to “Keep a low profile,” Brown is training his phone on his own beaming face, exulting that he’s up to 25,000 viewers. An unseen player shouts, “Keep it cool on social media! This is about us, and nobody else.” Not exactly. By the following morning, over one million Facebook viewers had seen Brown’s video.
Brown keeps rolling the tape and takes a roundhouse, 12 minutes into the recording, at anyone who ever doubted him, mocking the coaches “who didn’t recruit me to college,” and the critics “who said I was too small.”
Like Brown, Bell was drastically underrated coming out of high school. A two-star recruit out of Groveport, Ohio, he was rated by one scouting service the 211th best running back in the country. At the tail end of the recruiting process, thanks to a high-pressure sales pitch from his high school coach, he got a full-ride offer from Michigan State. Three seasons later, Bell rushed for 1,793 yards, and declared for the draft. While his NFL.com draft report knocked him for “sub-par vision” that prevented him “from seeing cut-back lines,” it did flatter him with a comparison to LaGarrette Blount, with whom he’ll be reunited in Foxborough.
The Patriots signed Blount on Nov. 20, 2014, two days after the Steelers cut him. With Bell emerging as the team’s, well, bell cow, Blount got zero touches in a Monday night loss to the Titans. After leaving the locker room early, following that game, he was sent packing the next day. While there were certainly hard feelings between player and head coach, Blount and Bell got along just fine.
There they were, in fact, in the same police report from August 2014. Blount was a passenger when Bell was pulled over in a Pittsburgh suburb. When police found a small bag of marijuana in the glove compartment, Bell revealed that he’d smoked two hours earlier. Upon learning they intended to cite him for driving under the influence, he told the cops—in a line that could’ve been lifted from an episode of HBO’s Ballers—“I didn’t know you could get a DUI for being high.” You can. He did.
After serving a three-game suspension for that infraction, Bell was dinged another four games (a penalty later reduced to three) for missing a drug test in December 2015. In his first game back this season—against the Chiefs, as it happens—he detonated for 144 yards on 18 carries. In his last eight games, he’s averaged a staggering 146.5 yards per game.
“And he can catch passes out of the backfield,” adds center Markice Pouncey. “This guy is special. Every day in practice he does something that makes you say, ‘Wow, that was amazing.’”
Bell deflected all praise from his hogs back at them, and in the direction of Brown. “AB’s such a threat on the outside, he makes those safeties a little nervous about coming up in the box.”
He described the field-goal fest as “a total team effort,” which is what the Steelers must come up with in Gillette Stadium if they are to play in their ninth Super Bowl next month. Regardless of how it goes in New England, whether the postgame mood in the visitors room is festive or funereal, don’t expect to see it on Facebook.