In stepping back from earlier statements this offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive captain and union representative Cameron Heyward talked to reporters yesterday about how important this time of year was for young players to learn — both to get to know the playbook and their surroundings, including their teammates and coaches.
That’s what first-round running back Najee Harris and the rest of the draft class is going through now as they get to step on the field for the first time with the veterans of the roster with the start of OTAs. But he had plenty of time to get to know Eddie Faulkner, the team’s running backs coach, during rookie minicamp; he was the only running back on the minicamp roster.
And yet that relationship began even in the pre-draft process and built quickly in the days following the draft as they sat together studying film. Harris discussed his quick-forming bond with Faulkner as he begins his journey in the NFL. He spoke to Missi Matthews yesterday following day one of OTAs.
“Coach Faulkner’s my guy. Ever since I got here, I’ve been with him every single day, just learning the offense”, he said, courtesy of the team’s website. “Just learning all the key words that play a big role in the formations and stuff like that, and really just to spend time learning all the protections and stuff, run games, screens, and stuff like that”.
“It’s good to build a relationship with him”, he added, noting that Faulkner’s son just had a birthday, and that he got to see his family. Of course, given what we know of Harris, it’s really not surprising that he’s wasted no time making connections in his new environs.
The relationship that matters most, though, is to that of the offense, and the success of the running game. That is the purpose for which Pittsburgh drafted him, after all. The Steelers finished dead last in many key rushing statistics last season. The edict came down from owner Art Rooney II himself that that can never happen again.
The issue as it concerns the run game is one of both quality and quantity. They struggle to run the ball consistently well, which reduces the frequency with which they run the ball. It has even been intimated that this reduction in attempts had a negative relationship with the frequency with which they actually practiced that aspect of the game.
Pittsburgh’s made significant changes since last season, however, though only time will tell which will be for the better and for the worst. The Steelers replaced offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner with former quarterbacks coach. The team promoted Adrian Klemm to offensive line coach from the assistant role, replacing Shaun Sarrett.
In addition, Harris will have at least three different blockers from those who carried the ball last season, including Zach Banner, injured in the 2020 opener. Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler left in free agency, while Maurkice Pouncey retired. Chukwuma Okorafor may move to left tackle, while Kevin Dotson steps in at left guard. Kendrick Green projects to play at center as a rookie, with the stalwart David DeCastro remaining at right guard.