Le’Veon Bell and James Conner were nothing but complimentary to one another after Conner’s 111-yard rushing performance in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Steelers win.

Whether Bell’s kudos were genuine or a reminder that the big dog is out there waiting to return remains to be seen. The expectation has been that the two running backs will soon be sharing Pittsburgh’s locker room and backfield — although apparently not as soon as widely expected — but one of them is already taking up space in the team’s psyche.

Bell, whose holdout passed Week 6 on Sunday, was previously reported to be planning on finally showing up this week, when his team is on a bye. That could have had him ready to suit up for an Oct. 28 game against the Browns, not to mention eligible for a possible trade by the NFL’s Oct. 30 deadline, but Monday came and went without him, and multiple reports out of Pittsburgh claimed that the Steelers were not expecting to have Bell back this week.

In Bell’s six-game absence, Conner has rushed for 453 yards (with three 100-yard games) and scored seven touchdowns on the ground. Since 1950, only Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris had rushed for seven TDs through Pittsburgh’s first six games.

Bell was kind enough to take note, tweeting, “damn james” alongside a muscle emoji after Conner’s tackle-breaking 16-yard gain in the third quarter. Conner tweeted two muscle emoji back, adding, “been watchin L Bell tape!”

“James was a bowling ball today,” Roethlisberger told reporters (via TribLive.com) after Pittsburgh’s 28-21 victory Sunday over the Bengals, attempting to make light of the reports and uncharacteristic drama swirling around the Steelers. “What a great game, but I know this is his last game for us because Le’Veon is coming back. I thought he did well in his last one.”

Reporters asked for more information after Roethlisberger dropped that little bombshell, and he said with a smile, “That’s just what I’ve heard.”

There’s a lot of gossip surrounding that impending return, with sources telling ESPN that Steelers officials and players have heard nothing from Bell, who could return at any point by Oct. 22. The Steelers will be off Thursday and Friday, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement’s requirement that players get four consecutive days off during the bye. Bell could report during that window, but he will have to sign his franchise tender, set at $14.5 million before the season, when he returns.

Bell’s holdout has cost him $855,000 for each week of the regular season he has missed, for a total amount over $5 million thus far. Even if and when he returns, with Week 10 considered the latest point because it represents a deadline on the NFL calendar with bearing on his free agency plans, the Steelers will reportedly have the option to place him on roster-exempt status for two weeks and negotiate a lower rate of pay for that period.

Meanwhile, Conner continues to play well.

“He had a look in his eye, and he had a good week’s work,” Coach Mike Tomlin said. “James just wants to put his hand in the pile and be one of the reasons why we win. He wants to prove that.”

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