With the Pittsburgh Steelers knowing that they will be without Le’Veon Bell for the first two games of the season, the team is faced with the unusual position of having a temporary roster spot, and as a result, there has been an added focus on the person most often assumed to benefit from that temporary spot, running back Josh Harris.
Knowing that he will be spending at least some time—most likely—on the 53-man roster, I get the impression that the Steelers and special teams coach Danny Smith are looking to expand his role on special teams, which could be the difference between a two-game stay and a longer visit.
Last season, Harris made the practice squad as an undrafted rookie, but was called up with five games left in the season after the release of LeGarrette Blount. He did not contribute much at all on offense until the season finale following Bell’s injury, but he did play a bit on special teams.
He did, however, have only one defined role throughout that entire duration, which was to serve as the up man on kickoff returns. He did so for eight snaps in the Steelers’ playoff loss, for example, and, upon reviewing these snaps, it’s clear that he has had some work to do this offseason, as he seemed to lack awareness of who to block as he turns upfield.
Various reports have indicated that Harris has remained in his role as the up back during the offseason, including at training camp, but as Alex Kozora recounted from Monday’s practice, it seems that the team will require more out of him on special teams, flexing out to a greater number of units.
As Kozora wrote, Smith worked with Harris to help improve his first step and punch for the punt coverage unit, which is not something that he was asked to do last season. that should not be particularly surprising, given that he would not have been receiving work with the starting special teams units as a practice squad player for most of the season.
Kozora noted that Smith has been working Harris a good bit, which to me indicates that he could potentially be in for a significant role. And that, beyond anything else, would be his ticket to an extended stay on the 53-man roster.
Also to his benefit is the fact that the Steelers are seemingly increasingly aware of what Dri Archer is, which is not a running back, nor a wide receiver, but simply somewhere in between. Which means that they could be more likely to carry an additional true running back on the roster.
The fact that the Steelers are unlikely to carry six wide receivers again this year—though Archer would technically be the sixth—also opens up the opportunity for the Steelers to leave open a roster spot for a fourth running back, including Archer, when Bell returns from suspension.
In order to assure that that happens, however, the young back must endear himself to Smith, enough that he would fight for him to keep him on the roster, a la Ross Ventrone a season ago, who played so well after being called up from the practice squad that he couldn’t be sent back down.
Harris may be given the opportunity to make himself a special teams fixture this preseason, and if he is, he had better seize it.