With the 24th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Najee Harris, the running back out of Alabama. Harris was nearly the consensus top RB prospect in this year’s draft class across the board, being regarded as the big, powerful feature back the Steelers haven’t had since Le’Veon Bell decided to hold out before the 2018 season. The Steelers have struggled as of late in successful run rates and converting short yardage situations as Dave and Alex have consistently highlighted on the Terrible Podcast as well as with various articles depicting the run game woes this team has had the last three seasons. Owner Art Rooney II made the statement early in the offseason that Pittsburgh will never finish last in the league in rushing again, promising an emphasis to improve the run game via free agency and the draft. Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin, and company heeded the big man’s demands, adding several new bodies to the offensive line and selecting probably the best short yardage back in the draft class.
I know you all have probably watched several hours of Najee Harris highlights and clips since the pick was made (and likely well before that like me), but let’s dive into the tape to see what exactly Harris brings to the Steelers as a short yardage back. Now at nearly 6’2, 230lb, Najee Harris has the frame you love to see in a short yardage back. He possesses great contact balance as a runner, routinely breaking off of the first tackler and often requires more than one to bring him down. He has good play strength and runs with a sense of urgency on every snap, almost having a nose for the end zone if close to the pylon. Watch on this play against Texas A&M where Harris gets the hand off and makes a subtle jump cut to the left while his line stalemate in front of him, accelerating up the hole for the score from three yards out.
What you notice with Harris is that he has exceptional vision and awareness for a runner of his size, being able to make quick adjustments and display the short area quickness to stop and start to find a hole in a pile of mess. Here in the same game we see Harris get the handoff to the right on the zone concept, but notices a gap open back up to the left side. Harris manages to plant his outside foot, drop his hips, and shoot up the middle to cross over the end zone for the score before the defender can meet him to keep him out.
Another good example of Harris’ vision and feel as a runner comes on this rep against Tennessee where runs from the I-formation and bounces it to the outside when he doesn’t see the push up front. However, he quickly realizes he has inside leverage on the defender coming down from the box who is playing outside contain on him and proceeds to quickly cut it back up the middle and plunge into the end zone for the score.
You see this occurrence a lot on film where Harris displays great vision and patience with the ball in his hands, being willing to follow his blockers on short yardage situations and get what is blocked for him. He ran behind a great offensive line at Alabama, so these opportunities were by no means at a shortage. Like on this simple pitch play against Georgia, we see Harris follow #70 Alex Leatherwood as the lead blocker to the LOS, getting the first down yardage and not pressing too quickly.
Another good example versus the Volunteers where Harris gets the direct snap and runs to the middle but recognizes the push on the left side, showing a quick cut to the left and the ability to accelerate forward and power through contact at the line to gain for the first down.
All this being said, Harris was able to show on multiple occasions his ability to create for himself, much like Alex Kozora highlighted in his recent piece. Look at this play against the Bulldogs and how Harris is quickly able to work around the block Leatherwood makes at his initial point of attack, smoothly adjusting to the side and makes a small cut to the right, spinning through a tackle attempts at the line to gain and picks up an additional five yards thanks to his contact balance and ability to fall forward.
And then you have these next two clips of Harris evading defenders in the backfield immediately after getting the ball, being able to sift through the trash at the LOS and power through defenders to move the sticks with two yards to pick up.
Now Harris may be a talented short yardage back with a nose for the end zone, but that doesn’t mean his is completely automatic when he has three yards or less to go. Despite having great size and play strength, he isn’t as physically imposing as say Derrick Henry who is an outlier at the position as a whole. When in close to the end zone or near the line to gain, defenders that are smart and take out his legs from underneath him can limit Harris’ ability to power through as seen here on this great from tackle at the goal line by #9 Tyler Gillespie.
It can take an army on some plays to keep Harris at bey, but when multiple defenders converge on him at the same time, he not going to break through all of them like we see occasionally on his highlight tape. Take for example this goal line stand by Ole miss where one defender goes high and the other goes low while several more converge and keep him from falling forward with one defender eventually coming around and ripping the ball out of his hands for his only recorded fumble on the season. Now for context, six defenders played a role in bottling up Harris on this play, and hardly any RB can expect to win those odds. This is just proving that blocking does matter to give Harris the chance to beat one or two defenders rather than having to go through half of the defense for the score.
How does Harris compare to another former Steeler in this role? Pretty well from my study. Le’Veon Bell started out over 230lb himself, playing that battering ram role often in his first season in Pittsburgh. However, over the years we saw Bell change his body and adopt a more patient running style, using his vision and short area quickness to read blocks and shoot up the hole at the last second. There is no more iconic play than the walk off TD here against the Chargers where Bell receives the direct snap just like Harris did earlier and follows #66 David DeCastro to the left, working through the gap and extending the ball over the goal line for the score. Both Bell and Harris have exceptional vision and field awareness for being bigger backs, along with the short-area quickness to exploit a hole and make a quick change in movement to get the yardage needed.
Another example of Le’Veon Bell at a game I actually attended in-person at Kansas City where Bell gets the ball three yards away from pay dirt and runs into the back of his offensive line, but then shoots forward through the opening to his left for the walk-in TD. This example is similar to Harris in the ability to read your blocks and trust the players in front of you to create holes. However, this play gets me excited considering how fast Harris seems to process compared to Bell, who would frustrate Steelers fans repeatedly when it would feel as if he would wait too long and leave some yardage on the table. Harris has the patience, but also the ability to hit the hole and go, running through defenders with power, arguably more so than Bell did after slimming down over the course of his tenure in Pittsburgh.
I’m not saying that Harris should be immediately better than Bell out of the shoot. Bell had the pleasure of running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league and Harris will have to deal with a lot of question marks up front to start his career with the Steelers. However, given his ability to get what is blocked for him and display patience, but also create off the script and pick up the tough yardage on his own, I argue Harris presents more upside than Bell, especially in short yardage situations. He has displayed the ability to go around you, through you, and over you as a runner, and should Pittsburgh improve their physicality up front, I have a hard time believing Harris will not significantly improve the team’s success rate on short yardage situations.