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Are the Steelers doomed without Le'Veon Bell?

Even if it is only a two-game suspension, Pittsburgh has to find a way to replace the sheer volume Bell carries in their offense.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

After months of DeflateGate uncertainty in Boston, it's actually the Pittsburgh Steelers who find themselves shorthanded due to suspension for Thursday's NFL season opener. The Steelers will be without one of the NFL's most prolific offensive weapons in Le'Veon Bell, one of the last true bell cow running backs left in the league.

Bell's serving a suspension stemming from a marijuana arrest in 2014. It's only two games, but Bell's absence leaves the Steelers searching for a way to fill the void.

Bell rushed for 1,361 yards in 2014, second only to Dallas' DeMarco Murray, and his 18.1 carries per game was fifth in the league. Bell's eight rushing touchdowns tied for eighth in the NFL.

In addition to those numbers running the football, he caught 83 passes, good for 19th in the league among all players, and second to only Matt Forte among running backs. His 854 receiving yards was best in the league at his position. To say that he was productive is an understatement.

Despite these excellent numbers, it still may be difficult to conceptualize how important Bell was to the Steelers' offensive attack, because they did put up top-level yardage and points last year. For context, let's break down just how much Bell was used.

First, the ground game.

Bell's rushing yardage made up 77.8 percent of the Steelers' ground game -- a number only bettered by Murray and the Cowboys, who got 78.4 percent of their rushing total from Murray. In a league where running back by committee is a common strategy, the Steelers leaned heavily on Bell from start to finish.

Two other teams did this: The Cowboys rode Murray all year. The Bears did the same with Forte (72.3 percent of rushing yards) -- but most of the rest of the NFL tried to spread the love around to different players.

For comparison, the Seahawks, who led the NFL with 2,762 yards rushing and whose offense features the fearsome Marshawn Lynch, spread that total around to Russell Wilson (849 yards), Robert Turbin (310 yards), Christine Michael (175 yards), Percy Harvin (92) and a few others. Lynch finished with 1,306 yards -- fourth in the NFL -- but accounted for just 47 percent of their ground yardage.

Additionally, Bell found the end zone at a much greater rate (per total team touchdowns) than most backs around the league. EIght of the team's 10 rushing touchdowns arrived on the feet of Bell, again coming in just behind Murray and the Cowboys, percentage wise.

One interesting comparison comes from ex-Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, who racked up 66 percent of the team's rush yards but accounted for only 31 percent of their rushing touchdowns. The Eagles looked to Darren Sproles and Chris Polk in the red zone, spreading some responsibilities and roles around to other players. The Steelers pretty much relied on Bell at all times.

Of course, the passing game is a huge part of the running back's job these days, and Bell was one of the best in this area last year. The Steelers leaned on him heavily in that role as well.

Forte paced running backs with 21 percent of the Bears total passing yardage, but Bell wasn't far behind in Pittsburgh, finishing with nearly 18 percent of their total yards through the air. The next closest running back in that category was Lynch, but his piece of the pie was much smaller, just 11 percent.

The Bears and Steelers leaned heavily on these backfield threats in the passing game. With Bell gone in Weeks 1 and 2, you could see the need for significant game plan tweaks.

Putting rushing and receiving together, let's take a quick look at which running backs comprised the biggest piece of their teams' total offensive pie:

Bell finished just behind Murray in total scrimmage yards with 2,215, and just behind Murray and Forte for percentage of their teams' total scrimmage yards. With Bell missing the Steelers' first two games, they'll have to figure out how to replace about one third of their total offensive output from last season. That's not going to be an easy proposition.

Will DeAngelo Williams be the beneficiary? Can Antonio Brown shoulder another one-third of the high-octane offense? Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wondered this himself recently.

"Could they get him the ball more?" asked Belichick. "I guess they could. But they get it to him a lot. He's definitely a go-to guy in the passing game, not just in terms of just making plays and [Ben] Roethlisberger going to him, but in terms of scheme, and plays that are designed to -- if not get him the ball -- at least get him a look."

Will they try to add even more ways to get Brown the ball? Would that be smart? The Patriots will almost surely look to scheme against Brown as the Steelers' top offensive threat. While that hasn't exactly worked for anyone over the past two years, Pittsburgh really will have to hope another player -- maybe Markus Wheaton or Dri Archer -- can step up and account for some of that missing production.

Pittsburgh can weather this two-game suspension, but it's pretty clear that they'll have to get creative in replacing Bell's enormous playmaking impact and sheer volume of action in their offense.