By Christina Rivers
In the third quarter of their final regular season game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, running back Le’Veon Bell, the team’s MVP for 2014, hyperextended his knee leaving his status up in the air for the playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens this weekend. In a proactive move, the Steelers signed veteran running back Ben Tate, most recently with the Minnesota Vikings, as an insurance policy. The move is seen as an intelligent one due to the lack of depth at the running back position, and the organization is familiar with Tate’s skill there. Tate’s signing will give the Steelers a different look and depth on offense that they need to be successful throughout the playoff season.
The Steelers verified that they had signed Tate via Twitter. The announcement came after Adam Schefter of ESPN previously reported that Tate was to visit with the Steelers. Tate was on the Cleveland Browns roster early in the 2014 season before being cut and sent to the Vikings. In the 11 games he played with the two NFL teams this season, the veteran rusher recorded 371 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. Tate was waived by Minnesota on December 23. Tate spent the 2011-13 seasons with the Houston Texans and was a second-round (58th overall) draft choice by Houston in 2010 out of Auburn. Since entering the league, Tate has carried the ball 540 times for 2,363 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tate has added 67 catches for 347 yards.
In his NFL debut, Tate rushed for 116 yards and his first NFL touchdown, then followed that up with another 100-yard game against the Miami Dolphins the following week. Tate and Texans teammate Arian Foster combined for 261 yards on the ground against the Cleveland Browns in 2010 to set a franchise record. Tate’s career has been dotted with heavy competition on teams that utilized a committee of running backs and injuries. At the NFL Combine (2010), Tate recorded a 4.43 40-yard dash time, a 40.5 inch vertical leap and 6.91 second time in the three-cone drill. It was injury that kept him from ever stepping into the role as the top running back on the teams he played with, not ability.
The fact that the Steelers brought Tate into the fold has no bearing on how the franchise feels about their most-valuable player. On Tuesday, Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin told the press, “Just rest assured, we’re going to make the right decision [in regards to Le’Veon Bell]. We won’t be swayed by circumstance – the magnitude of the game and so forth. If [Bell is] healthy and able to protect himself and can be a positive contributor to our efforts, we’ll play him. If we can’t answer ‘yes’ to all of those questions and then some, we won’t. It’s just that simple, and we’ll proceed with no excuses. We feel confident that we can field the type of team capable of winning this game, but also any game, if given legitimate time to prepare. And we have legitimate time to prepare.” The good news is that Bell has no structural damage to his knee, requiring rest and rehab rather than surgery. Bell was in the training room Tuesday riding a stationary bike in a manner Tomlin referred to as “training for the Tour de France.”
The wild card game against the Ravens is a must-win situation that Tomlin and the Steelers take seriously enough that they are weighing all of their options. With Tate signed, the Steelers have the ability to get him on the practice field and acclimated to the offensive scheme with Josh Harris and Dri Archer. Harris had a nice run against the Bengals that was negated by a holding penalty on Ramon Foster, but Archer continues to struggle as an undersized back in an offense that does not particularly cater to his abilities. “We’re looking at our options,” Tomlin said, “and Josh Harris is at the top of our list, but we’re not opposed to going outside the box with how we might prepare a winning formula for this football game…we pride ourselves in giving every man an opportunity, and during [Harris’] time here he has proven he belongs. Not only in terms of talent but what he’s willing to do, and his willingness to work has earned him the respect of the guys.”
“I try to get as singularly focused as I can to the variables that matter and that are within my control,” added Tomlin. “[Bell’s] overall health and where he is (in this rehabilitation) isn’t within my control. Our plan, particularly if we don’t have him [against Baltimore], is within my control, and so I spend a lot of time talking about that..”
If Bell is unable to play, it will take a combined effort from Tate and Harris to create the same impact that Bell was able to make against opponents in the Steelers offense. Tomlin did not rule out that the Steelers would utilize all available players at the position and reiterated that every player is expected to step up and take responsibility for achieving the goals the team sets for a win. Tate most-likely won’t just be a third-down back if he starts, but be used in a way that is very familiar to him – in a committee. He has spent his entire career doing just that and it may be in his and the Steelers’ favor that Tate recognizes his role in the big picture. The Steelers are preparing the offense for success, regardless of what it takes. “We’re going to turn over all the stones to make sure we’re prepared…” said Tomlin, stating that there would be no simple substitution on one back for another. “There’s more depth to it than that.” Tomlin praised Tate and pointed out that if the Steelers didn’t have faith in his ability to help the team be successful, Tate wouldn’t have been added to the 53-man roster.
The Steelers waived wide receiver Justin Brown to make room for Tate. The team also released cornerback Jordan Sullen and signed wide receiver Tim Benford to the practice squad. Tate will wear the number 34 jersey.
For more Steelers news and updates, visit Steelers Central.
Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on