Basically only one person who was intimately involved in the orchestration of the running game last season is returning last year, and that is Chukwuma Okorafor, who began 2020 as a backup but had to start 16 games on the right side due to injury.
Nobody else along the offensive line who was intended to start actually managed to start more that one game. The offensive coordinator is gone. The offensive line coach is gone. The lead running back is gone. Najee Harris, the first-round back out of Alabama, is now the face of the running game.
He’s still learning the faces of his offensive linemen, and that seems to be changing based on availability on a daily basis in practice. Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Zach Banner, and even Trai Turner have sat out practices. Kendrick Green did have one excused absence to attend a funeral.
“The line is what it is. It is what it is”, Harris told reporters about the men who are responsible for blocking for him. “Like I said, my job is to do what I can every run to help out the team. My job is to do everything I can to create better situations so we can be in better downs and distance for the team”.
“I believe in whoever’s in front of me, no matter who it is. Right now, we’re just breaking bread, getting used to everybody”, he added, “but it’s my job to create something when it’s nothing there, and it’s my job to hit the holes when something is there. There’s gonna be something there. It ain’t like I’m playing with scrubs or nothing like that. It’s just my job, really”.
Since last season, the Steelers have lost four starters, with Maurkice Pouncey retiring, Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler leaving in free agency, and David DeCastro let go after having an MRI that revealed he would need surgery; he is now contemplating retirement.
Banner is the only intended starter from last season returning, and he is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in the opener, his first career start. Okorafor played extensively last year, but, again, was intended to be a reserve, and will now be playing on the left side as opposed to the right.
And neither of them have done much team work since training camp opened. Nor has Dotson, the second-year guard who started four games last season and is projected to play on the left side. Green is a third-round rookie projected to start at center, while Turner is a former Pro Bowler signed as a free agent to replace DeCastro the same day he was released.
Harris is right in saying that the line is what it is, but we just don’t know what it is just yet. We can probably safely assume, though that they will deal with some growing pains at the start of the season as they try to come together as a unit.