The NFL debut for Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris was far from a remarkable one, totaling 22 yards on seven rushing attempts, plus one three-yard reception. But watching the game, the coaches came away feeling positive in having seen what they wanted to see: doing the routine things routinely, as head coach Mike Tomlin said.
Four of his first five carries were successful plays, before his final two carries running behind a second-string unit failed, one of which went for a loss of four. He recorded 24 yards across his first five carries before losing two on his final two. Five for 24 certainly looks much better than seven for 22. Harris assessed his own debut after the game.
“It was good”, he said noting that they were able to break off “a lot of five-yard runs. Any five-or-more-yard runs is efficient, so us as a team and us as a line, we did a lot. A lot of stuff we’ve got to work on, too, communication stuff, but as a whole, just getting the feet wet, it felt good”.
Four of his seven carries (four of his first five) went for either five or six yards, and if you can do that consistently throughout a game, then you have a pretty efficient rushing attack, even if it lacks an explosion element.
Those sorts of things will come in time, of course. This is just the very beginning of, frankly, a very new running game, featuring not just a rookie runner, but a first-year play-caller, a first-year offensive line coach installing a new philosophy, and a new offensive line featuring at least four players who have started fewer than five games for them in the past.
Harris is not necessarily a consistent homerun threat, but he is certainly capable of breaking off long runs, and has enough juice to perhaps take a couple of them the distance under the right circumstances, something the running game has lacked for years.
Of course, his role in the passing game is still something very much in development as well. While he held up well in pass protection, Pittsburgh only targeted him as a receiver once, and he didn’t have much chance to do anything with it.
This calls for a tempering of early expectations, but not enthusiasm. I have no doubts that it will all come together—and also keep in mind that at least four of the team’s projected starting linemen didn’t even play in the game. Everybody is growing into this running game, not just the new running back.