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The Steelers Have The Best Running Back-Receiver Duo. Ever.

Bill Belichick is famous for meticulously studying his opponent’s offensive strengths so that he can neutralize them with his defense. But as he prepares for his epic AFC showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend, he could probably skip some of the film study — Pittsburgh’s likely attack plan is so obvious that a first-grader could decipher it. They will run the ball with Le’Veon Bell. They will throw the ball to Antonio Brown. And that’s basically it. (OK, they may also throw the ball to Le’Veon Bell.)

Pittsburgh’s holy trinity of Ben Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell — or the Killer B’s, if we must — has always thrived when on the field together. But lately, it’s gotten absurd.

Simply put, Bell and Brown are making a very compelling case for being the best running back-wide receiver tandem in NFL history. Currently, Bell is on pace for 2,073 total yards and Brown is tracking for 1,857. That combined projected total of 3,930 yards — or about 2.2 miles — would break the record for the most yards by a RB-WR duo where each totalled at least 1,500. The current record holders won’t be too bent out of shape if that happens, since Bell and Brown set the record in 2014 (the last time Bell played a full season) with a combined 3,926 yards. What makes the pair’s current pace all the more impressive is that Bell labored in three September games this season after refusing to sign a contract all summer; he totaled just 79 yards per game in those first weeks, about half his production in the ensuing 10 games.

The last three games in particular have been off the charts. Brown and Bell have combined for 973 yards — or 324 per game. That’s more yards per game than 13 teams currently average. And it represents a stunning 70.5 percent of the Steelers’ total output from scrimmage in that span.

The best RB-WR duos in NFL history

Teams where a running back and wide receiver each had at least 1,500 total yards and what share of the team’s total output that represented

YSCRIM
TEAM YEAR RB WR RB+WR TEAM SHARE
Steelers 2017* Le’Veon Bell Antonio Brown 3,930 6,257 62.8%
Steelers 2014 Le’Veon Bell Antonio Brown 3,926 6,749 58.2
Rams 2000 Marshall Faulk Torry Holt 3,831 7,335 52.2
Colts 1999 Edgerrin James Marvin Harrison 3,806 5,842 65.2
Cowboys 1995 Emmitt Smith Michael Irvin 3,751 5,942 63.1
Lions 1995 Barry Sanders Herman Moore 3,584 6,263 57.2
Falcons 2015 Devonta Freeman Julio Jones 3,505 6,208 56.5
Bears 2013 Matt Forte Alshon Jeffery 3,459 6,378 54.2
Lions 1995 Barry Sanders Brett Perriman 3,434 6,263 54.8
Broncos 2000 Mike Anderson Rod Smith 3,357 6,775 49.6
Cowboys 1991 Emmitt Smith Michael Irvin 3,344 5,374 62.2
Cardinals 1984 O.J. Anderson Roy Green 3,330 6,722 49.5
Texans 2012 Arian Foster Andre Johnson 3,239 6,169 52.5
Texans 2008 Steve Slaton Andre Johnson 3,234 6,320 51.2
Packers 1995 Edgar Bennett Robert Brooks 3,233 5,967 54.2
49ers 1994 Ricky Watters Jerry Rice 3,188 6,259 50.9
Packers 2014 Eddie Lacy Jordy Nelson 3,085 6,364 48.5
49ers 1989 Roger Craig Jerry Rice 3,043 6,550 46.5

* Projected for the full season

Source: Pro-Football-Referencetball-Reference.com

Their share of total team production1 is increasing from already historic levels, too. Since the schedule expanded to 16 games in 1978, there have only been 18 tandems of backs and wideouts to each notch 1,500 yards from scrimmage.2 Among that group, Bell and Brown will rank third all time if they keep up this pace — they’re generating 62.8 percent of their team’s total yards this season, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Their share is not far behind the high mark on this list: Edgerrin James (2,139 yards) and Marvin Harrison (1,667) were responsible for 65.2 percent of the 1999 Colts’ yards. And just ahead of Bell and Brown are another famous duo — Emmitt Smith (2,148) and Michael Irvin (1,603) posted 63.1 percent of the 1995 Cowboys’ yards.

This degree of volume obviously requires a heavy — if not reckless — amount of usage. Bell, who leads the NFL with 283 rushes, is on pace to carry the ball 348 times and haul in 92 passes. If the free-agent-to-be Bell does leave Pittsburgh in the offseason, the Steelers seem determined to make sure they’ve wrung every ounce of value they can get out of him first.

Meanwhile, Brown’s 160 targets also lead the NFL, as do his 99 catches, by a wide margin. Simply put, no receiver has dominated his position like Brown since Jerry Rice was at his peak. Some are even calling for Brown to be the league’s MVP, an award that no receiver — not even Rice, who was arguably the greatest player in NFL history — has ever hauled in. If the award is going to one member of the Steelers duo, Bell would be the more obvious choice, since running backs occasionally bypass quarterbacks for the award. But it’s almost impossible to determine which skill player is most valuable, even just to the Steelers.

And that’s the thing that seems to make the duo unstoppable. Defenses cannot key in on stopping one of the two because it will leave them unprepared for the other. Even though all three Pittsburgh stars have been in the league a while and the Patriots frequently face off against the Steelers, Belichick doesn’t have a lot of experience dealing with Roethlisberger and his two biggest weapons at the same time. Either Roethlisberger or Bell has been injured and missed all or part of every Pats-Steelers matchup after Bell’s rookie year, when he wasn’t nearly the force he is today. And even with the rookie Bell, the Steelers rolled up nearly 500 yards of offense. But the Patriots gained over 600 in a 55-31 victory.

Footnotes

  1. Based on yards from scrimmage.

  2. The 1995 Detroit Lions actually had two of these pairs: That year, running back Barry Sanders hit the benchmark with two different wide receivers, Herman Moore and Brett Perriman, so Sanders is counted twice in our tally.

Michael Salfino is a freelance writer in New Jersey. His work can be found on Yahoo and the Wall Street Journal.

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