As Alex Kozora has highlighted thus far in his training camp reports, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been dealing with very thin practice lines over the past few days. Kozora reported of the 15 OL on the current roster, the team got to the point where only eight of them were competing in team sessions due to either injuries or veteran days off. Guys like Zach Banner, Chuks Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Trai Turner, B.J. Finney, J.C. Hassenauer, and Anthony Coyle have all missed time in some capacity, coincidently missing valuable reps to mesh and gel together to become a cohesive unit before the regular season rolls around.
Apparently, the lack of cohesiveness has been apparent thus far in training camp, especially in the running game. The defense has been routinely in the backfield in team sessions, hitting Najee Harris before he can get to the LOS and forces him to create outside of what is being blocked for him. Harris addressed this in his presser following practice with a positive mindset, stating that it is his job to make the first man miss and create outside of what is being blocked upfront for him. He has done this on a few occasions, bouncing off of tackle attempts and turning clear losses into modest gains on the ground.
However, even the best running backs in the league can only create so much on their own and need to get help from their offensive line to create holes for them to exploit on the ground. Along with a few impressive plays Harris has made outside of structure, there have been several instances where Harris is seeing contact shortly after receiving the handoff, not getting the chance to make a defender miss.
Obviously, all running backs are going to see their highs and lows in the ground game, having carries go for big gains as well as get caught behind the LOS from time to time. However, the quality of OL play and scheme is important to have a consistent running game throughout the season, otherwise you experience what Pittsburgh went through last year where they couldn’t get anything going on the ground. Now none of the backs on the roster last season have the talent and pedigree that Harris possesses, but the lack of continuity upfront has shown to limit even some of the more talented backs in the league.
I often have compared Najee Harris to Joe Mixon from a size/skillset perspective, as Mixon was undeniably talented coming out of Oklahoma. However, while he has had solid production with the Cincinnati Bengals in his first few seasons, the lack of talent and continuous changes to the Bengals offensive line during his NFL career has definitely capped Mixon’s upside as a runner, often being hit behind the LOS and forced to create outside of what’s blocked for him on nearly every play. His evaded/forced missed tackles are near the tops of the league when healthy, but this is out of necessity because he isn’t seeing the wide running lanes to get to the second level of the defense and face a linebacker or defensive back one-on-one in space.
Miles Sanders and Ezekiel Elliott saw similar situations last season due to the numerous injuries both the Eagles and Cowboys saw along their offensive lines. Because of this, both players noticeably underachieved compared to what was expected of them, having down seasons in the rushing department while trying to run behind replacement-level blockers and having defenses load the box on them.
This isn’t to say that Harris will see the exact same thing happen to him in 2021, as we are just over a week into training camp and have plenty of time for the OL to get healthy and log several practice sessions together before the regular season kicks off at Buffalo. However, time and reps are always valuable for an offensive line to gel together and become a well-oiled unit, especially considering that Pittsburgh will have all five spots boasting a new projected starter.
I still believe that Najee Harris is a talented runner and can make special things happen in the ground game given his skillset that made him a first-round selection back in April. However, if key members of the offensive line remained sidelined for a good portion of camp and only get minimal time practicing together, Harris, and the running game in general, may get off to a frustratingly slow start to begin the 2021 campaign.
What are your thoughts on the amount of injuries/missed practice time by Pittsburgh’s offensive line to start training camp? Do you think that this missed practice time will be overcome easily, or are you in the camp that this missed time will have a direct impact on the running game and subsequently Najee Harris’s production at least to start the 2021 season? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!