Le’Veon Bell expects Metlife Stadium to be “packed” with Steelers fans on Sunday. He anticipates feeling the love but also hearing plenty of boos.
“It’ll probably be 50-50,” he said. “Half will be happy to see me and still love me and half that hate me and despise me. I’m going to show love regardless. Everybody that’s wearing my jersey, I’m going to go sign it and things like that. It’ll be fun.”
This is the first time Bell will face his former team since signing with the Jets. He spent his first five NFL seasons with the Steelers and made three Pro Bowls, but he sat out all of last season because of a contract dispute with Pittsburgh, drawing backlash from some of his former teammates for bailing on them.
You have to believe this game means something to Bell. But he tried to say he won’t have any extra juice.
“I just go out there and play football,” he said. “Each and every game I play, I give it my all. I guess if I can find an extra squeeze, I’m going to try, but it is what it is for me.
“Last year’s last year. Two years ago is two years ago. I’m over it now, I’m past it. I’m here. I’m with the New York Jets and I’m happy.”
Things clearly have not gone as expected for Bell, though. He hasn’t been the dynamic playmaking back he was in Pittsburgh — he hasn’t had a single 100-yard rushing game — and the Jets are a disappointing 5-9 heading into their home finale. They failed to make the playoffs for the ninth straight year, but they can damage the Steelers’ playoff hopes.
Despite losing starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, the Steelers (8-6) hold the AFC’s last wild-card spot.
The Jets have their sights on sending the Steelers and their fans home disappointed.
“It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere,” safety Jamal Adams said. “They got to win to get into the playoffs. We’re treating it like a playoff game. We’re going out there to compete.”
Adams is expected to return after missing the last two games with an ankle injury. If so, he’ll go duck hunting.
Devlin “Duck” Hodges is the Steelers’ starting quarterback. Adams has 6.5 sacks and needs two to set the single-season record by a safety. Adams said “no doubt” he will break former Cardinal Adrian Wilson’s record.
But after throwing four interceptions in a loss to the Bills last week, Hodges might not drop back all that much.
The Steelers look to be getting Pro Bowl receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster back from a knee injury, but coach Mike Tomlin might have Hodges hand off to James Connor or throw short passes and be more of a game manager. Hodges’ 38 pass attempts against Buffalo, and more downfield throws than in previous weeks, was uncharacteristic.
“It’s really incumbent on us to be in control of the game,” Tomlin said. “Then it affords an opportunity where we can choose to run or not to. When you’re not in control of the game and you get somewhat one-dimensional, that’s the catalyst for negativity.”
The catalyst for the Steelers’ success has been the defense.
They entered Week 16 with 49 sacks, tied with the Panthers for the most in the NFL. Their 35 takeaways — 19 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries — were one fewer than the league-leading Patriots.
This could be a huge challenge for Sam Darnold, especially if the offensive line can’t handle the rush that’s coming.
Outside linebacker T.J. Watt is a leading candidate for NFL defensive player of the year. He leads the AFC with 13 sacks and has forced six fumbles. Watt, linebacker Bud Dupree and other Pittsburgh defensive players have mastered the technique of chasing backs and receivers from behind and punching the ball out of their hands.
“Both those edge guys are playing lights out,” Jets coach Adam Gase said. “They pursue the ball as well as you could ever ask any defensive player. Those guys are running down the field, popping balls out. You have to protect the ball all the way to the ground.”
Bell knows all about this, having played against many from this defense in practice over the years. He’s looking forward to facing them for real for the first time, and he said playing spoiler is not on his mind.
“I want to win each and every game I play in,” he said. “Regardless of their playoff chances or what they got going on, I don’t even know, I don’t even care. I want to go out there and win the game.”