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Le’Veon Bell’s Long-Awaited Return Will Have to Wait

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — More than 600 days will have passed from the last time Le’Veon Bell carried the football in an N.F.L. game to the first time he rushes for his new team, the Jets.

Adam Gase, the Jets’ first-year head coach, said this week that he did not expect the running back to play in the preseason. So Bell, who missed all of last season in a salary dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers, will see his first action on Sept. 8, when the Jets play the Buffalo Bills in the season opener.

“He’s played so much football as it is, and he’s had a lot of touches over his career,” Gase said. “And he understands — we had this conversation before he started training camp — about how important it was for him to get reps in practice and how important it was for him.”

He added, “He’s been great as far as just listening to how we’re telling him he needs to go about practice, which has given us confidence to know this is the right thing for us to do with him.”

Bell, who had 582 carries and caught 160 passes combined in the 2016 and 2017 seasons, figures he will be fresher in December, when Jets games mean more.

“It’s just getting back into the flow of things, really,” Bell said on Wednesday. “Obviously, the first week was a little tough on me. But every week, and each and every day, I’ve been getting better. Now that I’ve been in the flow, I don’t really think about that I didn’t play last year.”

Football requires exquisite timing, but Gase sees no problem with holding Bell back until the games matter — and neither does Bell. He carried the ball in only nine preseason games in five seasons with Pittsburgh, with only three carries total in his last two seasons.

“I don’t think me getting three more plays in the preseason is going to help me for Week 1,” Bell said.

That is not to say that Bell, 27, has been loafing. When training camp opened in late July, he voluntarily ran the team’s conditioning test twice. He took as many repetitions as his teammates during a two-hour practice Wednesday. While the special-teams unit ran a punting drill in a drizzle, Bell caught passes, working on keeping his toes inbounds.

Gase said Bell’s vigor has been obvious as veteran defenders have been thudding into Bell’s upper body, trying to strip the ball from him without tackling him.

“When they see him start getting lower and accelerating toward them, they know, O.K., he’s looking to do some damage here,” Gase said.

As Gase installs a new offense, Bell’s versatility, especially catching passes, could help the team’s second-year quarterback, Sam Darnold, develop.

“Obviously a game situation, with me scrambling, is different than maybe escaping a rush or two and him just kind of finding the open zone,” Darnold said. “We haven’t really gotten a ton of work at that, which I know he’s really good at. So I’m excited about that. But just with him being so available and the check-downs all the time, that’s something I’ve noticed in practice that he does a really good job of.”

Although he knows he will not be playing in the preseason, Bell has dressed for the games, and Darnold smiled when he said, “He’s out there in pregame with the pads on and dancing around and he’s like: ‘Let’s go, guys! Come on! Get fired up!’ I’m like: ‘Bro, you’re not even playing. Once you start playing, you can start doing that stuff.’”

But practices are not games, and Bell has not played in a game since Jan. 14, 2018, when the Steelers lost an A.F.C. divisional round playoff game at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 45-42. Bell’s last carry was an 8-yard touchdown run. His performance so far in practice has given the Jets an encouraging preview of what his return might look like.

“To me, you can’t tell that he hasn’t played in a year,” Gase said.

More on the JetsWhich N.F.L. Teams Could Seesaw From Worst to First?July 24, 2019With a Roster Full of Holes, the Jets Tried to Place Their Draft Bets WiselyApril 28, 2019Le’Veon Bell Joins Jets After Sitting Out 2018 SeasonMarch 13, 2019


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