The Pittsburgh Steelers had six rookies make their NFL debut on Sunday in the opener against the Buffalo Bills. None was more anticipated than that of Najee Harris, their first-round running back out of Alabama. And what a debut it was, at least in terms of duration, because like the offensive line and the quarterback, he played every single snap.
“I wasn’t surprised” by that, offensive coordinator Matt Canada told reporters on Thursday. “We were going to play him as much as we felt like he could handle. Obviously, we’re going to continue to watch him. [Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner] does a great job with making sure he’s not tired”.
It does help that the Steelers offense spent less time on the field than they normally would. They only logged 58 offensive snaps, compared to the Bills’ 85, as they controlled possession for greater than six minutes more than did Pittsburgh.
“We didn’t have as many plays as we would’ve hoped based on the first half not going quite the way we wanted it to, based on, obviously, the blocked punt”, Canada added. “The reps minimize in that. So, it wasn’t like we were definitely going to do that no matter what, but that’s the way it went. I wasn’t surprised, once the game ended, with the number of plays we had”.
That also shouldn’t be indicative of how things are going forward. When the Steelers are actually playing with a rhythm and have the opportunity to sustain drives on the ground, then you’re going to see more of a rotation in the backfield, getting Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage involved. But if Harris can’t handle 58 snaps and 17 touches, then there is a problem.
“We all talked last week, and we weren’t very positive it was gonna be great”, Canada conceded about the early efforts of their offense right out of the gate. “The first half, we were just a little bit off at multiple spots: This block, that block. It starts with all of us, as coaches, first. We just weren’t quite right. Offensive football is 11 men doing their job and if one guy doesn’t, it’s not clean. I think he did. I think everybody did”.
Not only must they all do their jobs, but it also must be done in sync with everybody else, in order for the play to go off in the manner in which it was designed. When you have four rookie starters, five new starters in total, a new offensive coordinator, and three new position coaches all on the same side of the ball, there’s probably going to be some growing pains in the first 30 minutes of the season.
It also didn’t help that that first game came on the road, and with a relatively sudden lineup change, with Dan Moore Jr. coming in at left tackle and Chukwuma Okorafor shifting to the right side due to Zach Banner’s injury. With a full game under their belts, this should smooth out some of the bumps that we saw in Buffalo.