The Najee Harris-for-Offensive Rookie of the Year hype train has officially left the station. The Steelers running back made sure of that during his much-anticipated debut Thursday in the 2021 NFL preseason opener against the Cowboys.
Don’t lock in Najee Harris to follow Franco Harris from Pittsburgh’s backfield to Canton just yet, but what the 2021 first-rounder from Alabama did in just three series in the Hall of Fame Game suggests the Steelers believe he will be their latest feature workhorse right out of the gate and into the next few years.
Najee Harris was advertised as a complete back, a powerful runner between the tackles but also an adept receiver on all kinds of routes. That profile, along with monster production for the latest Crimson Tide national championship team, was a big reason Harris was drafted No. 24 overall. His skill set was on full display vs. Dallas.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada should have seen enough in Harris’ seven first-half touches (for 25 yards) to try to preserve him for the rest of the preseason, knowing he will mean everything to the running and passing games in the regular season.
Harris showed off his strength and shiftiness. He had three nice chunk runs, balanced by three limited gains and a 4-yard loss. He also got involved as an outlet receiver for backup QB Mason Rudolph.
The biggest question about Harris’ production as a rookie is the Steelers’ new-look offensive line. While at Alabama, he ran behind Alex Leatherwood, Deonte Brown, Landon Dickerson and Evan Neal. The first three were drafted into the NFL this year along with Harris, while Neal is a surefire first-rounder in 2022. The Steelers are replacing four of their starters from last season, with Alejandro Villanueva (Ravens), Matt Feiler (Chargers), Maurkice Pouncey (retired) and David DeCastro (released) no longer in the lineup.
Pittsburgh will lean a lot on the experienced right side of guard Trai Turner and tackle Zach Banner. It is hopeful that second-year left guard Kevin Dotson can break out as a blocker. Left tackle and center, vacated by Villanueva and Pouncey, respectively, figure to be the most concerning positions.
That’s where Harris needs to maximize his talent through patient running, hitting the holes well when they’re available and fighting for every yard he can get. The Steelers spreading the field with their dangerous 11 personnel — led by wide receivers Diontae Johnson, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool — will help to open lanes.
The Steelers passed the ball 65.5 percent of the time last season, second only to the Jaguars in frequency. But with Ben Roethlisberger showing arm decline and averaging only 6.3 yards per attempt, the Steelers were just the 15th-most prolific passing team.
Pittsburgh needs to be more run-oriented in 2021. That’s the ticket to having a more efficient offense that’s more complementary to the elite defense. Harris will be fed often to take pressure off Roethlisberger and help the Steelers better manufacture big pass plays off play-action to Claypool and others.
Canada’s offense should also help Harris through different formations and additional sources of blocking. Fullback Derek Watt will be deployed more, and at some point, when he’s healthy again, rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth can boost the running game. That should allow for more confident usage of 12 personnel when needed.
Harris is headed toward being the high-volume centerpiece of the offense. Tomlin prefers having reliable workhorses, a la Le’Veon Bell in his Steelers prime, vs. piecing together a role-specifc committee. The latter setup hurt the Steelers last season, when it was evident there were few answers when James Conner couldn’t shake his durability issues.
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The Steelers gave every indication Thursday that 20 touches per game, or 340 touches for his rookie season, are conservative, lower-end estimates for Harris. This is a copycat league and the AFC North is a copycat division. The Ravens and Browns, fellow returning playoff teams, both featured elite rushing attacks last season and will keep building on that success this season to further aid their passing games.
There’s no doubt Harris will get as many carries and catches as he can handle. The Steelers just need to be wary of running their special rookie into the ground and make sure he’s fresh enough for when running counts most in the second half of the season and, they hope, into the playoffs.