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With Steelers’ season unraveling, Le’Veon Bell says he’ll be the ‘bad guy’ to help NFL peers

Steelers running back James Conner couldn't get much going in Sunday night's home loss to the Ravens (Fred Vuich/Associated Press)

It now seems clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers and tailback Le’Veon Bell need each other.

The Steelers need Bell. If that wasn’t obvious before Sunday night, it became glaringly evident during a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens that put the Steelers firmly in chase mode in the AFC North. Pittsburgh’s rushing offense was practically nonexistent, with fill-in tailback James Conner gaining 19 yards on nine carries. The Steelers fell to the Ravens, 26-14, to drop into a third-place tie with the Cleveland Browns, while the Ravens joined the Cincinnati Bengals in early control of the division race.

And Bell apparently needs the Steelers, at least if he wants to play any football in the foreseeable future. His contract staredown with the team continues, as he still has not signed his franchise-player deal or reported to the Steelers. The Steelers reportedly are listening to trade offers for Bell but have not received any offers that make a deal appear imminent.

The Steelers are now actively trying to trade Le’Veon Bell

Bell is passing up more than $855,000 per week by not showing up to play. No one should blame Bell for wanting to make as much money as he can, as soon as he can. The injuries suffered Sunday by Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert and Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas underscored yet again how fragile an NFL career is. The window for a running back to be productive — and cash in on that productivity — is particularly narrow.

When Thomas, who was a training camp holdout as he sought a contract extension, was carted off the field Sunday with a broken leg, Bell took the opportunity to assert that his own holdout was connected to a larger cause. He was, he wrote in a reply on ESPN’s Instagram account, willing to “continue to be the ‘bad guy’ for ALL of us.”

But how effective will Bell’s approach be? Many within the league wonder about that. Will he be able to make up what he is losing this season? The approach taken by quarterback Kirk Cousins while he was with the Washington Redskins signaled to other NFL players — or perhaps it should have — that playing under the franchise tag is not necessarily something to be feared or resisted. Cousins kept taking the Redskins’ money one year at a time, and eventually maneuvered the team into a position in which it had no other choice but to allow him to leave as a free agent. Then, Cousins secured a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal with the Minnesota Vikings.

The $14.544 million that Bell was to make this season under his franchise deal wasn’t the contract that he wanted. But it’s very good money, especially considering that the market for veteran running backs is not all that robust, comparatively speaking. Perhaps he should consider whether what he might be gaining by continuing to stay away offsets what he’s losing.

In the meantime, things simply are not working for the Steelers without Bell. Their record dropped to 1-2-1, putting them on even footing with the Browns. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 224 first-half yards against the Ravens, but managed only 50 in the second half and the Steelers could not keep up. It has become highly questionable whether they will be a factor in this division race if Bell does not show up soon.

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The Ravens gave a very solid performance Sunday night, led by quarterback Joe Flacco’s 28-for-42, 363-yard, two-touchdown passing performance. They upped their record to 3-1, tying them with the Bengals for first place. The Ravens did not play well in a Week 2 defeat at Cincinnati. But they’ve been very good otherwise through the first quarter of this season as they attempt to return to the playoffs after a three-season drought.

The Bengals pulled out a dramatic victory Sunday at Atlanta and they’ve been the division’s best team so far, given the win over the Ravens. But the loss of Eifert hurts their offense considerably. No one is firmly in control of this division at this point.

If the Browns had held on to their late lead Sunday in Oakland instead of letting it slip away and losing in overtime to the Raiders, they might have been positioned to be a factor in the division race with rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield in charge. Instead, the Browns probably will have to settle this season for reaching respectable status after going a combined 1-31 over the previous two seasons.

At this point, the Browns’ respectability has them on even footing with the Steelers. That’s not exactly where the Steelers expected to be a quarter of the way through the season. Their best solution at this point would be to find a way to work things out with Bell.

Read more on the NFL:

Earl Thomas gives Seahawks’ sideline the finger while getting carted off

The Bucs had such a bad showing Sunday the head coach is calling for his own firing

Colts Coach Frank Reich made the boldest — and most ill-fated — decision of the NFL season

The Patriots just reminded the rest of the NFL that they aren’t done yet

The Giants gambled on Eli Manning and a bounce-back season. So far, they’re losing.