In the absence of Le'Veon Bell, left, Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers have struggled to a 1-2-1 record. (Keith Srakocic/Associated Press)

Le’Veon Bell reportedly plans to return to the Pittsburgh Steelers by Week 7, which would give the team approximately a week to work out a possible deal before the NFL’s trade deadline. However, the running back, who is staying away from the team out of frustration over stalled contract talks, expressed “hope” that he could still work out a long-term pact with Pittsburgh.

“It sucks having to sit out football,” Bell said Monday to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. “I want to play. I want to win games and the playoffs.

“But I’ve got to take this stand. Knowing my worth and knowing I can tear a ligament or get surgery at any time, I knew I couldn’t play 16 games with 400 or more touches.”

Bell is unhappy at being set to play for a second straight year under the franchise tag, which would have paid him $14.455 million for one year, except that he is costing himself more than $855,000 out of that amount for each week of the regular season that he skips. If he needed some validation for his strategy, though, it came Sunday, when the Seahawks' Earl Thomas, who skipped training camp and preseason games while demanding a contract extension that never came, broke his leg in a likely season-ending injury.

On an Instagram post in which Seattle’s Bobby Wagner wrote that Thomas had reason to be “p---ed off,” Bell commented that he was willing to “continue to be the ‘bad guy’ for ALL of us.” Later in the day, Fowler reported that a source told him Bell “expects to report to the Steelers during the Week 7 bye” and “definitely plans to play football for the Steelers this season.”

Fowler’s colleague Adam Schefter subsequently reported that Pittsburgh “still is expected to be interested in listening to trade offers” for Bell, and that the plan to return in Week 7 “would not dissuade the Steelers from making a deal that made sense.” On Sunday, multiple reports indicated that the Steelers had begin to actively shop Bell around to other teams, possibly seeking at least a second-round draft pick and a good player in exchange for the three-time Pro Bowler.

Bell, though, told Fowler that he didn’t find it “logical” that a team would give such a bounty “potentially for someone who could play six games with no guarantee of a long-term deal.” He said he was “still holding out hope” that he can come to an agreement with Pittsburgh in the offseason and eventually retire as a Steeler.

“I could be naive or hopeful, but at the end of the day I feel like that’s what’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t think they really want me gone.”

In Bell’s absence, the team has gone 1-2-1 while erstwhile backup running back James Conner has followed a strong Week 1 showing with notably less effective performances. Pittsburgh’s total of 19 rushing yards Sunday night in a 26-14 home loss to the rival Ravens were its fewest in a game since 1970 (per ESPN).

Bell said he was aware his holdout was “costing me some fans,” and despite getting criticized by some teammates for failing to show up for Week 1, he claimed, “I’ve got a lot of good relationships with players on the team.”

“I think they understand the decision,” he added. “At the end of the day, they said what they said in the media. I’m not really too upset about it. It was a little disappointing, but I understand their side. When I talk to them, I hope they get that side of it.”

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