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Cook: Big-hitting Kendrell Bell winning over fans, team

Friday, October 19, 2001

Levon Who?That seems cruel to say because Levon Kirkland put in nine good seasons here. But the Steelers' defense hasn't missed him. It's better, actually. It's ranked No. 1 in the NFL.

Thank you, Kendrell Bell.

His story would be amazing if only because he's the Steelers' first rookie linebacker to start his first NFL game since Jack Lambert in 1974. But there's so much more to it, to his role in a defense that has led the team to a surprising 3-1 start and first place in the AFC Central.

For one thing, there's the way Pittsburgh has fallen hard for the guy. That's not so surprising considering our fascination with big hitters. Darius Kasparaitis and Ulf Samuelsson are legends here. Lambert is off the charts. Jerome Bettis is the most popular of the current Steelers, not just because he has three consecutive 100-yard games, but because he runs over tacklers to get his yards. "That's Steelers football!" we love to say. Even Kordell Stewart has won grudging respect because of his willingness to give up his body when he takes off and runs.

Of course, Pittsburgh is going to love Bell.

He's the Steelers' fiercest hitter. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Trent Green knows. Bell ran through him, lifted him off the ground and tried to bury him Sunday when he got the first of his two sacks in the game. "Man, your eyes get real big when you get the opportunity to take a shot like that," Bell said, grinning. Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna knows. The week before, Bell sacked him on the Bengals' first possession. "I thought Kendrell's play set the tone for the whole game," Bill Cowher said.

It's no wonder Bell gets the fans excited.

"He has the same effect on his teammates," defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said. "You should hear them whoopin' and hollerin' every time he makes a play."

You should hear Lewis when he's in the privacy of a dark film room, reviewing tape of the previous game. Invariably, Bell jumps off the screen.

"He'll do something, and I'll say, 'My gawd, I don't think I've ever seen that before,' " Lewis said. "He's just so athletic, so powerful, so explosive."

It's not hard to imagine Lewis doing a little whoopin' and hollerin' of his own.

"Kendrell is the hardest-hitting rookie I've seen in a long, long time," Bettis said.

Like Green and Kitna, Bettis knows.

No one can talk about Bell without mentioning the play he made during a goal-line scrimmage during training camp. The Steelers thought they had found a jewel in the draft when they traded up to take him out of Georgia in the second round. After this particular play, they were convinced.

"I remember it well," Bettis said, wincing. "My fullback went the wrong way. That left me and Kendrell in the hole together. There was a whole lot of contact."

"I don't think I've ever stood next to a hit that hard," Lewis said.

Bettis got the worst of it. That might surprise the Chiefs, Bengals and Buffalo Bills who tried to tackle him the past three games. It certainly surprised him.

"No one stops me like that. I knew right then we had ourselves a player."

Bell didn't think much of the play at the time, but he has come to realize its significance.

"Maybe if Jerome had ran me over, things would have gone the other way for me. You know how it is when you're a rookie coming into a new scene where no one knows you. You have to do something to open eyes."

Bell didn't do much in the season-opening loss at Jacksonville after sustaining an injury to his right ankle during the second series. But there has been no stopping him since the Steelers started playing again after three weeks off. He had 27 tackles and those three sacks in the past three games.

It's only a start, Bell and Lewis said.

"I'm still learning that it's all about team defense on this level," Bell said. "In college, I'd just run all over the field and make plays. Here, I have to look at the bigger picture."

"We're trying to keep him in situations in which he's comfortable -- rushing the passer and playing the run," Lewis said. "He'll be even better once he fully understands our base defense."

Bell comes out in passing situations, but it's only a matter of time until the Steelers find a way to keep him on the field to take advantage of his pass rush.

"I think I've shown I have some athletic ability," Bell said. "Coaches love to see speed. They can do a lot of things with it."

That thought made Lewis smile. It wasn't hard to read his mind.

The whoopin' and hollerin' has only just begun.

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.

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