The Pittsburgh Steelers are awfully excited about the road ahead for Najee Harris, their rookie first-round running back. Frankly, they’ve been excited about him long before they ever drafted him, president Art Rooney II previously saying that the only anxiety they faced before the draft was whether or not there were too many dots connected between the Steelers and the Alabama pounder.
And Mike Tomlin can’t wait to unleash him against another one of their star young players, 2019 10th overall pick Devin Bush. The third-year inside linebacker continues to recover from a torn ACL suffered in week six last year, but hopefully should be up to speed in training camp.
You may recall seeing highlights of a remarkable one-handed catch that Harris was able to make during the spring, working in one-on-one receiving drills against Robert Spillane. It was an attention-grabbing play, without question, but it wasn’t until now that we know just what it set off.
“Oh my goodness!”, we see Tomlin exclaiming in a segment of the Steelers’ new installment of The Standard, their documentary series detailing the offseason process. Then we cut to a series of stills of Harris skying for the ball. “That’s that pedigree. That’s that pedigree”, his head coach repeats.
As Alex Kozora wrote over the weekend, then we’re on the sideline, standing there with Harris on his knee, and Bush in street clothes. “I’m gonna reserve 22 for Devin Bush. I like matchups. I like matchups. I want to see this a lot”.
“We’re gonna do it all”, he addresses his linebacker. “You’re gonna have to cover him. He’s gonna have to pick you up in blitz. We’re gonna do it all. We’re gonna find everybody’s soft underbelly. We’re gonna sharpen iron on iron”.
While Bush did participate at some level during OTAs and minicamp, he was only performing in select drills. It remains to be seen at what level of participation he will be prepared for at the start of training camp next week, but you know if he’s ready to go, he’s going to see a lot of ‘22’, that being Harris’ jersey number.
It’s not as though we were previously unaware of Tomlin’s affinity for ‘matchups’, a frequent pairing of one particular player against another, in a contest of the wills designed both to test the mettle of each man, as well as to serve as an example to others.
This shapes up to be the matchup of the highest pedigree since we had Le’Veon Bell going up against Ryan Shazier or Lawrence Timmons, and I’m all for it. I’m certain that competition brought out the best in both of them.
Of course, Harris versus Bush isn’t the only great camp battle to watch. Steelers’ practices are designed to bring out the best in one another, to pit best-versus-best and see who comes out on top. Tomlin will often ask linebackers and running backs to square off two or three times in a row to see who not only wins the battle but wins the war. The same goes for O-line/D-line in one-on-one sessions.
Kendrick Green will take on a crafty veteran nose tackle in Tyson Alualu and probably see a bit of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt as well, an incredible test for any rookie. James Pierre will be tasked to cover Diontae Johnson. Alex Highsmith and Chukwuma Okorafor will square off over and over, two young players needing to step up in substantial ways.
But Harris against Bush is one of the marquee matchups, if only because it’s the most visible and easiest to report on. The Steelers are counting on both players to be stars on this team, part of the young nucleus of the roster for the next generation. Both are just 23 years old (or at least will be as of tomorrow in the case of the linebacker; Harris is actually slightly older than Bush, even if the latter is already entering his third season). Both first-round picks. Both drafted to address a dire need. Both essential. And now, practice rivals.