Joique Bell a terrific closer for Lions
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Usually the closer role is something you hear of in baseball.
The Detroit Lions are looking to bring it to football, and they've already found the man for the job.
Three months ago, Joique Bell was a virtual unknown. Now the bruising 5-foot-11, 220-pound running back is making his mark as the Lions' go-to guy late in games.
Bell has averaged 5.2 yards a carry and 12 yards a reception in the second half as the Lions have used him to shred tired defenses. The move has paid off for all involved, and Bell, who had stints with four teams in two years before coming to the Lions, has carved himself quite a niche.
"When the coaches look at you and have faith in you, you have to realize, their decisions are being judged just as much as my play is being judged," Bell said. "So if I go out there and do a terrible job, their job is on the line. So for them to put that trust into me, it just gives me that much more confidence in my play.
"It's pressure I'm willing to take, endure and embrace. I like being out there when the game's on the line."
Bell was one of the most prolific rushers in Division II history at Wayne State in Detroit, just down the road from Ford Field. He rushed for 6,728 yards in his four seasons, including 88 touchdowns. As a senior he earned the Harlon Hill Trophy, awarded to the best Division II player.
Bell is the first player from Wayne State to make the NFL since 1996. His college coach, Paul Winters, said Bell was easily the hardest-working and most talented player on the field.
"In college, he was a good-sized tailback for any level," Winters said. "He combined that with his speed and natural instincts. I think he has really great vision and great feet, and you combine that with his hard work and you have a great talent."
After becoming an undrafted free agent in 2010, Bell had trouble catching on with a team. Coming back to Detroit was apparently just what the doctor ordered.
"I always dreamed of it, but you're just dreaming," Bell said of getting a chance. "You really don't know how it goes. You have to be prepared when opportunity presents itself and just attack it."
The opportunity presented itself out of the gate. Bell stood out during the exhibition season but was one of the last players to make the team when the Lions found themselves without Jahvid Best (concussion) and Mikel Leshoure (suspension). Bell slid into the opening and immediately started paying dividends, scoring on a 1-yard plunge in the team's first game, against St. Louis.
"It feels good for a guy like Joique," Lions coach Jim Schwartz said after that game. "It's tough to be an NFL football player, it's tough to break a roster. We had him in the Senior Bowl a few years ago and he's made teams and been on practice squads and stuff like that, and it felt good to see him get in the end zone in his hometown. That was fun to watch."
For Bell, being able to share that moment with his now-7-year-old son meant more than anything.
"My son came out for my first game, my mother was here, and my son was able to see me score my first touchdown," Bell said. "It's a feeling we're always going to have together and one we'll be able to share and, down the line, look back and hopefully he might be able to be in the same position I am one day, and we can sit back and talk about my days, because I'll be too old, and we can start his legacy."
The touchdown was Bell's only carry against the Rams. But then something happened. His role started growing. Each game, he found himself more involved in the offense.
He now has 43 carries for 189 yards and two scores in addition to 23 receptions for 263 yards. He's contributed in one way or another in each game, most notably in the Lions' 31-14 win over Jacksonville last week.
In that game, Bell led Detroit with 13 carries for 73 yards, including his second touchdown, and three receptions for 36 yards. He came in, like vintage Mariano Rivera, to shut the door on the Jaguars. His score from 10 yards out with 5:54 to go gave the Lions an insurmountable 31-8 lead.
More than anything else, it's Bell's ability to catch the ball and go that makes him the Lions' closer. Winters said in receiving drills at Wayne State, everyone would be practicing catching the ball with two hands and Bell would be using only one.
"He was just that good," Winters said.
Leshoure and Bell are starting to make their mark as one of the best one-two-punch running tandems in the NFL.
"He's strong," Schwartz said of Bell. "One thing with Joique is, very rarely does the first guy get him down. He's got good balance, very strong. Gives us a little different dimension. All those guys are a little bit different style. [Offensive coordinator] Scott [Linehan's] done a good job, as has [running backs coach] Sam Gash with the mixing and matching of those guys and being productive, having them all in different roles."
But Bell, who was known for his hard work in college, has carried that over to the pros and isn't going to stop being who he is despite his newfound success.
"I still have a ways to go," he said. "This is the NFL. You never arrive. I have to keep proving myself every day. I come in every day, I work hard, do extra studying, do extra in the weight room and it's just a grind you have to continue. I can't fall back thinking I've arrived and lose that step."