Going into Sunday’s matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders, the hope was that rookie RB Najee Harris would see a little more running room than he got last week against a stout Buffalo defensive front. Najee Harris’s snap share dropped from 100% Week 1 in Buffalo all the way down to 95% (53 snaps) in the Week 2 matchup against the Raiders. He ceded three snaps to Benny Snell Jr. who totaled two carries for one yard on the ground when in the game. Thus far through two weeks of play Harris has logged 111 snaps on offense with Snell only having the three snaps against the Raiders. No other running back has logged a snap.
Sadly, Harris experienced a similar struggle to get anything going consistently on the ground for Pittsburgh throughout the afternoon. He finished the day with ten carries for 38 yards (3.8 YPC) while also adding in five receptions (on five targets) for 43 yards including a 25-yard receiving touchdown.
What is fascinating about the stat line for Harris is that he actually was pretty effective on the carries he got, having two separate runs for 14 yards on the day. Here is the first big run of the day by Harris, running counter to the right. Kendrick Green allows his man up the field to open up a hole with key blocks by guards Kevin Dotson on the pull and Trai Turner to spring Harris to the second level of the defense. #76 Chukwuma Okorafor gets a key block on the safety and #88 Pat Freiermuth lands a big block on a defender coming in from the right as Harris runs wild into open space for the first down.
Prior to this play, it looked like more of the same to last Sunday against Buffalo with Harris fighting to get every yard he possibly could. Here on the opening drive of the game, Harris catches the pitch from Ben Roethlisberger to the left, sidestepping a defender flying in at his feet, but gets swallowed up by three Raider defenders to keep him from getting to the line to gain.
After getting the first down, we see Pittsburgh go back to the ground game with Harris on 1st-and-10. Harris takes the hand off to the left but has nowhere to go with #65 Dan Moore Jr. failing to get the outside shoulder of the defender, ultimately losing his block as Harris gets engulfed by the defense by no gain. Harris does everything he can to fight back to the line of scrimmage to prevent a loss of yardage, but a failed run attempt nonetheless.
Much like last week, there were several instances where Harris was running for his life in the backfield, attempting to create something out of nothing. This play encapsulates that statement as Harris takes the hand off to the right out of the shot gun but has a defender immediately in his face due to a missed block by #69 Kevin Dotson, giving ground in the backfield in hopes of getting to the sideline but #24 Johnathan Abram is waiting for him after a miss by #51 Trai Turner on another block, wrapping up Harris behind the line for a loss of yardage on the play.
Not all of the blame should fall on the offensive line, however, as there were a few instances where Harris needs to execute better as a runner. For example, on this play Harris takes the hand off and approaches the line of scrimmage but hesitates, bobbing side-to-side like a boxer rather than putting his foot in the ground and hitting the hole. The wasted movement causes him to stumble making it easy for the defense to rally as he crosses the LOS and bring him down for a minimal gain on the play.
While he had his own miscues Sunday afternoon, nobody can question Harris’s effort as a runner. The guy constantly makes the most of the situation he is in and refuses to go down on first contact. Watch this play as Harris only picks up four yards as he bounces outside and gets wrapped up immediately but continues to drive his legs on contact to get everything he can before being blown down. If you go back to the start of the play, a hole to the right side did open up that Harris should have exploited but didn’t wait long enough to the play to develop to run toward the right sideline. That is a trust of vision that Harris will have to improve on.
Pittsburgh did a much better job against the Raiders getting Harris involved in the passing game than in Week 1. Early on in the game on Harris’s first highlight play of the day, we see Harris run out to the flat on first down uncovered, giving Ben an easy check down throw with room to get YAC. Harris catches the ball and turns upfield, meeting Johnathan Abram along the sideline and hits him with a nasty stiff arm, tossing Abram like a rag doll out of bounds and proceeds to make two defenders miss at the same time before getting cut down by #52 Denzel Perryman a yard shy of the first down. This play shows Harris’s blend of power and elusiveness all in one.
As mentioned earlier, Najee Harris’s TD came on a 25-yard reception in the fourth quarter. On third down, we see Harris run the option route against the box defender, breaking out to the left sideline out of his route to bring in the pass from Roethlisberger. Harris eludes the diving tackle by the defender in coverage, turning up the sideline and rumbles down the field, leaping into the end zone as he extends the ball across the goal line for the score. This this the type of play we expect Najee Harris to be able to make when he gets in open space and has room to run, being just as dangerous as a receiver as he is as a rusher.
This last play comes on the hurry up drive that led to Pittsburgh kicking a field goal. Harris catches his second consecutive pass on a delayed screen pass, leaking out to the right side and spins out of a tackle attempt by one defender and bounces off of another tackle attempt by the second defender coming in pursuit. The third defender on the play trips him up and gets him down, but not before Harris famously falls forward, extending the ball and extra yard to maximize the touch.
Overall, the stat line wasn’t anything to get excited out when it comes to Harris’s performance against the Las Vegas Raiders, but his effort and mindset of capitalizing every touch made me come away respecting the guy’s play even more than I initially thought. Sure, he needs to be more decisive at times hitting the hole and trust his eyes as a runner, but Harris’s ability to consistently bounce off of defenders and not allow the first guy to bring him down is truly a sight to see. We got to see his role expand as a receiver and saw a taste of what he can do on the ground with competition blocking up front on his two long runs on the day.
Hopefully, the offense continues to improve the more the offensive line has time to gel together as well as have Zach Banner return potentially after Week 3 from IR. Along with improved play from the OL upfront, OC Matt Canada needs to find more ways to scheme up touches for Harris both as a runner and a receiver in order to keep defenses honest to open up the rest of the passing game for Ben Roethlisberger. Whether it be on slip screens, option routes, splitting him out as a receiver, or creative ways to get him in space as a runner, Harris needs to be given the ball in more advantageous situations to maximize his ability whilst giving the offense the spark it desperately needs.
What are your thoughts on Najee Harris’s performance against the Las Vegas Raiders? DO you think that he did as much as he could given the situation around him? Do you see potential areas he personally needs to improve upon to be more efficient? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!