The Ravens have had to craft defensive strategies to limit opposing running backs such as the Buffalo Bills' LeSean McCoy, the Cleveland Browns' Isaiah Crowell, and the New York Jets' Matt Forte. But the Pittsburgh Steelers' Le'Veon Bell – who will visit M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday – presents a different challenge for the defense.
"He's a unique, unique running back," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said after Thursday's practice. "One of the most patient guys I've ever seen. Just really exceptional. I think he's one of the best backs we've ever gone up against. He's a very patient runner. If you jump off the blocks too quick, he's going to make you pay. And the thing of it is, there's guys that are kind of patient runners and guys that are downhill runners. The difference with him is he's patient, and then when he bursts, he bursts. He can hit the hole quick. He's got great vision. The other thing is, he's a problem out of the backfield in the passing game. He's just a super talented guy, and I think he's different from most of the backs."
Despite sitting out the first three games of the season for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, Bell already ranks fifth in the league in yards from scrimmage with 589. He has yet to find the end zone this season, but his pass-catching ability (he ranks fifth among tailbacks in receptions with 30) makes him a threat on every down.
The Ravens have fared well in the past against Bell, who has reached 100 rushing yards just once and scored three total touchdowns in five career meetings. While declining to elaborate on the defense's success against Bell, outside linebacker Albert McClellan said the key is to avoid being lulled by Bell's shifty moves.
"He'll make you commit to something you thought you saw, but he's quick and he's got such a good jump-cut that he'll maneuver through a hole that really wasn't there from the get-go that he created off of just one movement," McClellan said. "… You really can't take too many chances with him because he's a make-you-miss type of guy. So we really need everybody rallying to the ball."
Bell's patience has come in handy as he has been stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage just twice on 69 carries – a 2.9 percentage that trails only Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's 2.6 percentage, according to STATS. Pees said it will be incumbent on the defense to stick to the game plan on Sunday.
"Guys can't guess," Pees said. "If you've got a gap to control, you've got to control that gap, and you've got to stay on your blocker and be patient. When you get a runner like that, you've got to be very disciplined on defense, too. Like I tell everybody, when he gets the ball, everybody on defense is at the point of attack because he could go anywhere at any time."