Bell proves he has half the job down pat

Steelers' NFL honoree showing early signs of Ray Lewis-like talent

January 18, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH - It's a bit odd that the NFL's top defensive rookie rarely plays in passing situations, but it's something he intends to change. Soon.

"Next year," said Kendrell Bell, a linebacker who is a big part of the difference between the way the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense performed last year and the way it has stifled offenses during a 13-3 season.

"This is the wrong time to be doing a lot of changes."

For now, Bell, an Augusta, Ga., native, is perfectly happy to sit on third-and-long situations, as pass coverage is his weakness.

The Steelers' coaching staff is equally satisfied at the moment to have him lay vicious hits on running backs coming up the middle and for him to rush the quarterback.

Taken 39 picks into the draft, he's done well in both assignments this year - recording nine sacks, 15.5 tackles for lost yardage and 88 tackles overall. Those numbers were good enough to earn him the top defensive rookie honor earlier this week, as well as a Pro Bowl alternate designation.

"No one has made a bigger contribution to their team than he has to ours," Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. "Certainly, his ability to play at a high level for 16 games has been a credit to him and his teammates."

Bell is merely one of a stellar collection of linebackers on the Steelers, which had the NFL's top-ranked defense this season.

Veteran Jason Gildon is headed to the Pro Bowl after a 12-sack season. Joey Porter's nine sacks place him among the AFC leaders. Earl Holmes had 118 tackles to lead the team for the third straight season.

But whereas before Pittsburgh had Gildon and Porter to rush opposing quarterbacks from the outside, there wasn't a force in the middle. Bell, who played at Georgia, solved that problem.

"The presence Kendrell gives us makes us more of a well-rounded defense as far as blitzes," Gildon said. "If you have a team with guys both inside and outside, it keeps offenses off-balance and they have to play you more honest."

One way or another, the Steelers seemed to have solved the problem of what to do when, last spring, they cut Levon Kirkland, a once-starring linebacker who had slowed down.

They moved Holmes into Kirkland's "Buck" spot - the linebacker who takes on more blockers, and, into Holmes' former freelancing, "Mac" spot, they decided they would insert either free agent veteran Mike Jones or Bell, who'd gone from junior college ball to Georgia before entering the NFL.

With Jones and Bell, Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said he knew he was set at the position. Only later would he find out to what extent that was true as the rookie quickly took to a 3-4 defense that often allowed him to run free.

Coming in as not even the first defensive player taken by the Steelers in the draft (that was Texas defensive tackle Casey Hampton), Bell set the tone by busting the team's star running back, Jerome Bettis, during a training-camp practice.

Opposing players got the same treatment throughout the season.

"If you'd watch Kendrell in college, you would have figured out after only a game or two that he fit the bill and fit it pretty well," said Lewis, who feels Bell has the potential for a career on a par with that of Ray Lewis, the Ravens' star linebacker.

"But would I have guessed that he'd be a Pro Bowl alternate and Defensive Rookie of the Year? Not in my wildest imagination."

Bell's success has made him something of a celebrity in the Steel City, where he now finds himself endorsing such products as Blitzburgh Salsa, as well as doing the typical auto dealer commercials.

He still has some unfinished business, however - like becoming a polished football player. Cowher has tried to make sure Bell has not had to pick up too much of the pro game too soon, a luxury afforded by the presence of Jones, an able defender in passing situations.

By next season, Bell expects to have a broad grasp of his responsibilities on defense. For now, he's happy with his role.

"I know if I go out there and blow a coverage, it's a touchdown," he said. "I'm comfortable with where I'm at now. It's no problem with me."

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