FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell will encounter a potentially weird dynamic Sunday: He could get booed in his own stadium by fans who used to cheer his name.
Bell faces the Pittsburgh Steelers for the first time since their messy breakup, and he suspects the Terrible Towel-waving fans — known for traveling well throughout the NFL — will invade MetLife Stadium with mixed emotions about him.
“It’ll probably be 50-50,” Bell said Thursday. “I think half will be happy to see me and still love me, and half that hates me, despises me. It is what it is. I’m going to show love, regardless. Anybody who’s wearing my jersey, I’ll go sign it. It’s going to be fun.”
Bell downplayed the matchup, but this figures to be emotional game for him. He was one of the Steelers’ best players from 2013 to 2017, but the two sides engaged in a nasty contract dispute in 2018, prompting Bell to sit out the entire season as an unsigned player. Some teammates were critical of his decision.
Bell played the bygones card, insisting there’s no bad blood.
“No, last year was last year and two years ago was two years ago,” he said. “I’m over it now. I’m past it. I’m here. I’m with the New York Jets, and I’m happy.”
Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract with the Jets, insisted this game will have no more juice than any other contest. With a smile, he added, “I guess if I could find an extra squeeze in there, I’ll try.”
The Steelers (8-6), battling for the second wild-card spot, are desperate for a win. The Jets (5-9) are out of the playoff race, looking to finish the season on the upswing.
They expect to feel like the road team in their own home, much like they did Nov. 24 against the Oakland Raiders. The Jets were booed during pregame warm-ups, which they used as fuel for their victory, according to safety Jamal Adams.
The atmosphere will be similar against the Steelers. In fact, the Jets are practicing their silent count on offense, just in case it gets loud.
“It’s going to be packed with Steeler fans,” Bell said. “When we played the Raiders, there were a lot of Raider fans and it was loud. I think it’ll be the same as that, if not more. Steeler fans travel well. I definitely know that.”
This has been a disappointing season for Bell, who hasn’t approached his Pittsburgh production. After averaging a league-record 129 total yards per game in Pittsburgh, he’s down to 83 yards with the Jets, who have struggled to find ways to use him in the passing game.
Bell said he doesn’t regret his decision.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” he said. “The way things are going, obviously it’s not ideal with the way our record is. But like I said in Week 2, Week 3, this is kind of like rebuilding. I want to be a part of it and see it grow.”
Bell is coming off his best rushing day — a season-high 87 yards against the Baltimore Ravens — perhaps an indication that things are turning.
“I feel like the last few outings, it’s looked more like we thought it was going to look,” coach Adam Gase said.
Bell isn’t getting as many carries as he did in Pittsburgh, prompting him to say last week that his talent isn’t being maximized. On Thursday, he reiterated that notion, saying, “I feel like I’ve been playing some of my best football. When I get opportunities to touch the rock, I feel like I make the most of it.”
A year ago, Bell’s absence created tension in the Steelers’ locker room. Now?
“I’m telling you, we love Le’Veon,” Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, the outside world can think whatever they want, but everyone in this locker room loves and respects him. At the end of the day, hell, if he was still here, we’ll be riding with him.”
ESPN’s Brooke Pryor contributed to this report.
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