Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell leads the league in yards from scrimmage. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

The Pittsburgh Steelers head into Monday night with a 9-2 record and a 2.5-game lead in the AFC North over the Baltimore Ravens. They are the fourth-best team in the NFL per Football Outsiders, the sixth-most talented team per the game charters at Pro Football Focus and the sixth-best team per our Power Rankings, giving the Steelers almost a 100-percent chance of making the payoffs.

But their success has not been driven by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Rather, it’s been running back Le’Veon Bell who has been the most valuable to the team’s success this season. In fact, no franchise relies on one player as the Steelers do Bell, who’s been used heavily in both running and passing plays. It’s a usage rate — and his effectiveness with the ball — that makes him a candidate for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.

But that won’t be easy — the previous four MVPs were quarterbacks, and QBs have won nine of the past 10 awards. Thus it is no shock that Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks get the lion’s share of the attention in this year’s race. Still, Bell deserves to be the front-runner.

The 25-year-old native of Ohio has carried the ball a league-leading 252 times for 981 yards and five touchdowns. Of his 3.9 yards per rushing attempt in 2017, 2.6 yards per carry have come after contact, and his 33 missed tackles are the second-most at the position behind Kansas City Chiefs rookie Kareem Hunt (48). His carries also account for a league-high 80.8 percent of his team’s total; Hunt is second at 69.2 percent. The past three running backs to be named MVP — Shaun Alexander (2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (2006) and Adrian Peterson (2012), henceforth referred to as the “MVP peer group” for the sake of clarity — all had a lower share of their team’s rushing attempts and rushing yards produced.

Season Running back Percentage of team’s carries Percentage of team’s rushing yards
2005 Shaun Alexander 71.3% 76.5%
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson 66.7% 70.4%
2012 Adrian Peterson 71.6% 79.6%
2017 Le’Veon Bell 80.8% 85.7%

In addition to his ability to pound it on the ground, Bell has caught 61 of 76 targets for 396 yards. The passing game in Pittsburgh revolves around star receiver Antonio Brown (32.1 percent of team targets, second-most in the NFL), but Bell is second on the team with 19.3 percent of passes thrown his way by Roethlisberger. And among running backs, no one has been asked to run more routes in 2017 than Bell.

As a result, Bell has been responsible for almost a quarter of Pittsburgh’s receptions. That ranks him 15th in the league, including wide receivers and tight ends, and is a higher rate than any of the three running backs in the MVP peer group. Bell also garners 13.2 percent of the team’s receiving yards, more than Peterson and Alexander had in their MVP seasons.

Season Running back Percentage of team’s receptions  Percentage of team’s receiving yards
2005 Shaun Alexander 4.9% 2.1%
2006 LaDainian Tomlinson 19.5% 14.9%
2012 Adrian Peterson 10.6% 7.4%
2017 Le’Veon Bell 19.3% 13.2%

Bell now leads the league in yards from scrimmage with 125.2 per game, and he also leads the league in percentage of team scrimmage yards at 34.1 percent. Plus, his 313 touches (rushes plus receptions) represent 55.6 percent of his team’s total, making him the only non-quarterback to account for at least 50 percent of his team’s yards in 2017.

It should be clear Bell is the most valuable non-quarterback this season. But is he more valuable than some of the quarterbacks being considered? If history is any guide, the answer is yes.

Since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams, quarterbacks who have been named MVP have produced 32 percent more adjusted net yards per pass than an average quarterback, with half of the past 13 MVP quarterbacks producing a mark that was 31 percent above average. Similar to passer rating, adjusted net yards per pass gives a bonus for touchdowns and it penalizes interceptions and sacks, making it more correlated to team wins than the more traditional passer rating. We can then compare that to the league average — the higher the metric over the league average, the better that performance was relative to his peers. Applying the 30 percent mark to this year’s quarterbacks leaves us with no qualifying players, and only New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady comes close with 8.1 adjusted net yards per pass, 26 percent higher than the league average.

Quarterback Adjusted net yards per pass in 2017 How much higher than average
Tom Brady 8.1 +26 percent
Carson Wentz 7.4 +16 percent
Russell Wilson 6.9 +10 percent
Average QB MVP since 2002 + 32 percent
Median QB MVP since 2002 + 31 percent

Wilson, much like Cam Newton is his 2015 MVP season, is buoyed by his ability to make plays on the ground, too, but Newton had significantly more carries and touchdowns at this point of the season in 2015 than Wilson does.

First 12 games Games played Carries Rushing yards Rushing TD
Cam Newton (2015) 12 108 476 7
Russell Wilson (2017) 12 71 432 3

Wilson does have a hand in 27 of the 30 touchdowns scored by Seattle, but that in of itself doesn’t warrant MVP consideration.

In 2015, Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles accounted for 37 of Jacksonville’s 40 touchdowns, but didn’t receive a single vote for MVP. Perhaps that was due to his team finishing the season with a 5-11 record whereas Seattle is now a wild-card team after defeating the Eagles, 24-10, on Sunday night, but the fact remains Bortles was every bit as important to his team’s offense as Wilson is in 2017.

The bottom line is no quarterback’s statistics this season compare favorably to what has historically won the MVP award, while Bell is every bit as good, if not better, than his peers, making his candidacy one that should be talked about more in the final weeks of the season.

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