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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Le'Veon Bell spent a portion of his Tuesday testing his hyperextended right knee on an exercise bike. The Pittsburgh Steelers spent it preparing for life without their most valuable player.
The Steelers signed well-traveled running back Ben Tate as a backup plan in case Bell's knee doesn't respond in time for Saturday night's wild-card game against Baltimore. The sight of his budding star grinding through a workout might have been encouraging, but Tomlin hardly seems optimistic, pointing out "there won't be any bikes on the field."
Instead, there will be the NFL's fourth-ranked run defense, one that will be bolstered by the return of nose tackle Haloti Ngata following a four-game suspension for using Adderall. Even if Bell can somehow get medical clearance, Tomlin admitted he's not even sure he's going to give the OK for Bell to play. The 22-year-old is a vital part of Pittsburgh's future beyond this weekend. Taking any unnecessary risks when there are viable if less proven options might not be the smartest way to go.
"We're going to do what's right and we're not going to be swayed by circumstance," Tomlin said. "Guys have been cleared by doctors in the past and I've chosen not to play them."
Tate began the season atop the depth chart in Cleveland but saw his playing time decrease as his production dwindled. He eventually lost his starting job to rookies Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell and was cut in November. Minnesota took a flier on the former second-round pick, but Tate managed just 38 yards on 13 carries in three games before getting released.
The 26-year-old now finds himself as Pittsburgh's most experienced option as the AFC North champions brace for their fourth playoff showdown with Baltimore since 2001. Rookies Josh Harris and Dri Archer combined for 56 yards rushing on the season. Archer struggled to find a role while Harris was on the practice squad until the Steelers cut LeGarrette Blount for sulking his way off the field with the clock still running in a victory over Tennessee on Nov. 17.
Tomlin allowed it might be unfair to ask any of the trio to fill Bell's role by themselves. Bell set franchise records for yards from scrimmage (2,215) and receptions by a running back (83) and is one of the few backs in the league who looked just as comfortable lining up in the slot at wide receiver as he did standing behind the quarterback and taking a handoff.
"When you're talking about replacing an impact guy like him it's not a one-man job, it never is," Tomlin said. "It's a multiple-man job and it might be a multiple-man job across positions."
While Tomlin insisted Tate might not be ready to plug and play, the Steelers have had success with guys walking in off the street. James Harrison came out of an 18-day retirement in mid-September and played the next weekend. Max Starks was signed off the couch in 2011 and was starting at tackle four days later.
Pittsburgh will "leave the light on" for Bell, and the fact there is no structural or ligament damage to Bell's knee means there's a very real chance he could surface later in the postseason if the Steelers advance. Tomlin stressed the team would not use the health of one of the league's most productive players as an excuse either way. Pittsburgh wouldn't have drafted Archer or signed Harris or Archer if they didn't think they could play. Harris did have a 59-yard burst against Cincinnati on Sunday night called back by a holding penalty behind the play. It's not much, but it's a start.
"His story is not a sexy one like a lot of guys," Tomlin said. "He didn't come into this game with a lot of fanfare, or even to this football team, with a lot of fanfare. Really, a lot of us didn't know a lot about him even after we acquired him. But we pride ourselves in giving every man an opportunity and over the course of his time here he's proven that he belongs."
Tate will be given the same opportunity as he attempts to revive his career. He played three seasons in Houston as part of a successful tandem with Arian Foster. Given a chance to start in Cleveland, he faltered. Pittsburgh offers a shot at redemption. Given the circumstances, the Steelers will take it.
"I have confidence in anybody that is on our 53 (man roster)," Tomlin said. "If I didn't, they wouldn't be on our 53. Anybody can be a reason why we're successful and I mean that."
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