The Pittsburgh Steelers had the worst running game in the NFL last season, by most accounts. Based on their own actions, the team obviously felt there was a cornucopia of causes to explain this shortfall, which played a role in their moving on from both their offensive coordinator and offensive line coach, as well as their starting running back. The offensive line was also substantially overhauled, though not largely by choice.
Gone is James Conner, now with the Arizona Cardinals and looking to prove himself all over again, but for the Steelers, there’s a new face of the ground-and-pound, that of rookie Najee Harris, their first-round selection out of Alabama, who will be toting the ball indefinitely from this point forward.
The first running back off the board during the 2021 NFL Draft, he was clearly the Steelers’ target all along, and they didn’t hesitate when he was available 24th overall. The Steelers view him as a complete player, capable of executing all of his responsibilities at a high level.
He’ll have to in order to make things work, but he won’t be able to provide all the answers himself. Still, his presence should help a lot, and it’s not difficult to recognize his talent. Pro Football Focus, for example, ranked him 20th among starting running backs heading into the season before he plays a down.
“Ranking rookies is always a tough ask without any real knowledge of how they will perform at the next level”, Sam Monson acknowledges. “Harris is a complete back who can be a force in the passing game as well as on the ground, and he could get a huge workload as the Steelers look to justify their pick and rejuvenate their run game. Harris averaged 3.7 yards after contact per carry in college”.
There is a lot of talk within the analytical-minded crowd about just how little a role the actual ball-carriers play in the mechanisms that lead to the success or failure of the running game, but a healthy yards after contact average is typically a telling variable indicating a running back’s independent abilities.
Clearly, the Steelers need somebody in the backfield who can work to create his own offense as the team tries to get its bearings in this brave new world of actually running the football with physicality and purpose. Harris can be that back.
Perhaps it is worth noting that Conner doesn’t even feature on the list. Of course, signing with the Cardinals, he figures to work in a platoon with Chase Edmonds, rather than having a proper feature role the way he had in Pittsburgh.
I hope you’re sitting down for this, but Le’Veon Bell, too, is absent from the list of the top 32 running backs entering the 2021 season. Oh, and he’s also absent from any team’s 90-man roster, as of the time of this writing.