The first training camp practice in front of the fans earlier today also marked the first practice of the year in pads, and with it came the most popular drill that the Pittsburgh Steelers conduct, the blitz-pickup version of backs on backers.
In the drill, running backs and tight ends are tasked with facing linebackers in a one-on-one drills situation in which they must stop the rush, as the defender gets a full head of steam. With a new first-round running back in the fold, naturally, all eyes were on Alabama’s Najee Harris. Head coach Mike Tomlin came away pleased with what he saw from his new ball carrier.
“Obviously, the backs on backers is important because it’s more of an attitude drill. It’s an opportunity to get to know some of these people”, he said after practice. “I think we all saw that Najee likes competition. He doesn’t run away from it, he runs to it, and that was something about the drill that was exciting from my perspective today”.
According to reports from training camp, Harris went one on one multiple times with linebacker Marcus Allen. He is said to have called for a rematch after not being satisfied with his performance in his first rep in the drill.
When asked about his early struggles in the drill, Tomlin disputed that characterization, saying, “your words, not mine”. He added that “his demeanor was telling. It was exciting that he had an appetite for that action”.
At 6’2” and a listed 230 pounds, Harris is certainly a load, but he’s far from a loaf. The Steelers believe that he is capable of being a complete back in every phase, including in obvious passing situations with the ability to both catch the ball and stay back in pass protection at a high level.
His work ethic has so far been the most explicit storyline about this early juncture of his career, which seems to have been readily apparent for all of his coaches and teammates. He has been viewed as the full-time starter since the second the team ahead of the Steelers got their pick in and left him on the board back in April.
Pittsburgh finished 32nd in rushing offense last season, and the team has emphasized improving the running game since then. Drafting Harris as a premium talent was just one piece of the puzzle, which also included swapping out their offensive coordinator and line coach, and retooling the offensive line.
Still, it’s not going to be a one-year process. Harris is going to have to fight for what he gets this season, most likely, but the Steelers also believe he has the vision, athleticism, and power to create his own offense.