Coming into Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora stated on The Terrible Podcast that the key to victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers would be to establish the running game with rookie RB Najee Harris. While Denver ranked as the #1 rush defense heading into the matchup, Dave was confident that Pittsburgh could have success on the ground, stating that the Broncos had surrendered a run success rate over 50% in the four games prior. Dave proved to be a wizard again, correctly predicting the Najee Harris breakout on the ground as he rushed 23 times for 122 yards with one TD. He also had a long run of 20 yards and caught two passes for another 20 yards.
The offense looked motivated and rejuvenated in the contest as the offense line controlled the trenches for the first time virtually all season. The got a consistent push up front, allowing Harris to get to the second level and gash the defense for chuck gains. Check out this run early in the game by Harris and the surge upfront by the offensive line, working the defensive front backward as Harris attacks the LOS and powers forward for nearly seven yards on first down.
The Steelers continued to utilize Harris on the draw out of the shotgun formation much like in the previous contests and saw great results. After the long TD catch by Diontae Johnson to start the game, the Broncos defense played more honest, keeping the box light with defenders in coverage, allowing Harris to get advantageous opportunities on the ground. On this draw, Pittsburgh aligns heavy to the right side with #76 Chukwuma Okorafor and #65 Dan Moore Jr. together on the right side. Harris takes the hand off as Moore kicks out #58 Von Miller, spring Harris to the second level as he runs away from #40 Justin Strnad and finishes the 21-yard run carrying #31 Justin Simmons around his ankles.
Dave Bryan of Steelers Depot tweeted out shortly after the game that 16 of the 23 (69.6%) runs by Najee Harris were successful against the Broncos. With Harris actually able to get past the LOS and into the second level, we got to see his strength and evasiveness as a runner on full display against Denver. On this run, Harris takes the hand off as a traditional tailback with #7 Ben Roethlisberger under center and runs up the middle, getting key blocks by #69 Kevin Dotson and #88 Pat Freiermuth as he meets Strnad in the hole, but manages to spin off the tackle attempt to the left and famously fall forward for a couple extra yards.
Much like the Green Bay game, Harris once again showed us Sunday that he can just as easily go over you as he can go around you or through you on his touchdown plunge along the goal line. The offensive line gets a good initial surge on the left side, giving Harris enough room the leap into the air and cross the plain for the epic score at the goal line.
Harris seemingly had his way with the Broncos defensive front when the offense faced light boxes. On this run deep in Pittsburgh territory, Harris takes the inside draw and bounces it to the right, seeing a giant hole open on the right side thanks to the LE running up the field. Harris meets #29 Bryce Callahan in the second level and gives him the little brother treatment, feeding him a nasty stiff arm as he continues to run forward. He eventually tosses Callahan to the ground and gets undercut by #22 Kareem Jackson, but not before he successfully gets to the chains.
As reported by Gerry Dulac, Najee Harris ran for 123 yards on 23 carries which is the most by a Steelers running back in 30 games. It was the first time in 16 games the Steelers had more rush attempts (35) than pass attempts (25). Pittsburgh seemingly struggled to move the ball when the other backs came into the game to spell Harris, but Harris had his way with the defense when he got the ball. Here is another run with Ben under center where Harris takes the handoff and runs wild into the Broncos secondary thanks to a great push by the offensive line, getting a big hole to the left that he explodes through, eventually getting ankle tackled from behind.
Harris made multiple defenders look silly on various occasions throughout the contest. He dished out stiff arms, a spin move, and leaped over multiple guys at the goal line for the score. On this play, we see Harris’ sweet feet for a 230lb back, meeting #23 Kyle Fuller 1-on-1 in space on the bottom of the screen. Harris hits Fuller with the stutter and head fakes right, getting Fuller to shoot forward and he turns left up the field, getting wrapped up by three Broncos defenders but proceeds to carry them on his back an extra couple yards.
We continued to see Pittsburgh utilize Harris in the receiving game Sunday both out of the backfield and split out as a traditional wide receiver. The latter occurs on this play as Harris runs the quick out from the slot to the left sideline, getting a natural pick from teammate #18 Diontae Johnson as the CB and LB run into each other, freeing up Harris to make the grab and turn up the sideline for first down yardage.
Pittsburgh also utilized Harris out of the backfield as a pass catcher. He Harris runs the Texas route to the right side, like what he did when I broke down his pass catching chops at Alabama this summer where he had a day as a receiver against the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship Game last spring. Simmons doesn’t get on Harris quick enough in coverage as he breaks to the middle of the field catching the pass from Ben and proceeds to turn up field and fight through the head tackle from Simmons, picking up a couple extra yards to get it to third-and-short.
Overall, this was Najee Harris’ best performance on the season against what was supposed to be a stout Broncos rush defense. The thing is, Harris likely would have had an even bigger game if he didn’t suffer from cramps in his calf in the second half, causing him to miss out on the last few offensive drives. The offensive line must receive credit as well for their performance and stepping up their game after a rough start to the season, but Sunday was just a taste of what Harris can do going forward, showcasing the talent we saw him display at Alabama. With Seattle next up on Sunday night surrendering the second-most rush yards per game this season, Harris should have a game in primetime.
What are your thoughts on Najee Harris’ performance Sunday against the Denver Broncos? Do you credit Harris for continual improvement as a runner, the offensive line for better play upfront, or both? Can Pittsburgh keep this going moving forward and can Harris become the identity of the offense this season? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!