PITTSBURGH — Le'Veon Bell considers the first injury of his NFL career — a sprained foot in a preseason game three years ago — a freak accident.
The last two? Not so much.
The Pittsburgh Steelers running back took the field with his teammates Tuesday for the first time since tearing the MCL in his right knee last November against Cincinnati. Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict twisted Bellawkwardly as the two tumbled out of bounds just a few yards away from where Bell's 2014 season ended after taking a shot to the same knee from Cincinnati's Reggie Nelson.
Burfict celebrated openly as Bell writhed in pain, a memory that lingers even after Burfict reached out on social media in March to express support as Bell worked his way through rehab.
"Obviously it looked like they were happy about it," Bell said. "I'll take the liberty of just thinking everybody plays just football to love the game. But people aren't out here playing like that. People are playing to take people out. Obviously I know that now."
Bell didn't single out Burfict specifically, calling the play symptomatic of life in the AFC North.
"I feel like there's a lot of teams that do that, try to take me out of the game," Bell said. "I don't think it was just him. I feel like the whole team was trying to twist my ankle and do dirty stuff between the piles."
Burfict was not penalized for the tackle, which rendered Bell a bystander for Pittsburgh's run to the playoffs. That run ended with a loss to Denver in the divisional round, a game in which Fitzgerald Toussaint served as the primary ball carrier with both Bell and backup DeAngelo Williams sidelined.
It's a scenario the 24-year-old Bell wants to avoid in 2016. While he is one of the league's most versatile and dynamic backs when healthy, he's missed 15 games (including playoffs) in three seasons. He understands concerns about being injury prone will linger, though he attributed his problems to a couple of "nasty tackles" more than anything.
"I feel like my luck probably, hopefully, should change this year and I'll be on the field, nothing freaky," Bellsaid. "Just take care of my body, do the little things right, and if I do that I'll be OK."
Bell admitted he wasn't quite 100 percent last spring when he returned from the hyperextended knee. To avoid rushing back too quickly, he's being closely monitored by coach Mike Tomlin and the team's training staff. He participated in individual drills Tuesday, but was not involved during the team portion of the workout.
"They're just getting me back into it slowly," he said. "Right now I feel like I can do everything, but they're going to protect me from myself."
Bell eschewed any type of equipment to protect the knee. He knows he faces a daunting test the first time he tries to plant and change direction, something he does as well as any player in the NFL.
"When I come back out here, my first time cutting, my first time doing things, you think about it," he said. "It's more mental. I know my knee is strong enough ... once I get over that mental (stuff), I'll be just fine."
If he is fine, the Steelers have one of the league's best offenses. They finished third in yards even with Belllimited to six games. Yet they will also enter 2016 without wide receiver Martavis Bryant, who is sitting out a yearlong suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. It's a loss they can overcome, particularly if Bell is anywhere near the form he showed during an All-Pro season in 2014.
Bell insists he will get there, predicting he will be fine by the time the Steelers head to Washington for the opener on Sept. 12. He would like to be cleared for contact during training camp, but understands Tomlin's focus is on keeping Bell fresh for when it counts.
The Steelers and Bell have not had any preliminary discussions on a new contract as Bell enters the final season of the four-year deal he signed after being taken in the second round of the 2013 draft. He figures things will work out so long as his focus remains in the right place. For now that is staying pragmatic in his rehab with the regular season still more than three months away.
"When September gets actually here, I'll feel even better than I do now," he said, "it's kind of crazy to even think about. I'm excited."