Contrary to public perception, Mike Tomlin is a film room junkie. An old-school, X’s and O’s, meat and potatoes kind of guy. So Najee Harris was probably stunned as anyone when Tomlin declined Harris’ offer to watch film with him after the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Week 1 win over the Buffalo Bills. But looking back, Harris understands and appreciates Tomlin’s decision.
Joining the NBC Crew via Peacock after the Steelers’ Week 6 win over Seattle, Harris shared a story of a conversation he had with Tomlin after the season opener after a quiet, 45-yard NFL debut.
“The Bills, first week,” Harris said in his post-game interview. “It was my first game, I was like, man, I hope these people don’t think that [I was the wrong pick]. Give me some time. So I was like, let me go in there and ask Tomlin what I need to work on. I said Tomlin, can I speak to you after practice. He’s like ‘yeah, sure.’ I saw him walking upstairs I was like, ‘Hey, is it OK if I watch film with you? Break down some stuff I need to do work on?’ He’s like, ‘No. I’m not going to do that. We trust you, we believe in you, we’re just going to wait for you to blossom. There’s no pressure on you. The good thing about this process is that everyone in this building believes in you.'”
That faith was well-placed. It took a couple more weeks for the offensive line to execute, but the run game showed signs of life in Week 4’s loss to Green Bay. They took a big step forward in their Week 5 win over Denver, Harris rushing for over 120 yards, and they continued to run well in Sunday’s win over Seattle.
Through the first three games, Pittsburgh ranked last or next-to-last in several running categories.
Steelers’ Rushing Offense (Weeks 1-3)
Rush Attempts – 31st (50)
Rushing Yards – 32nd (159)
Yards Per Carry – 32nd (3.2)
It’s been a much different story since. Here’s how the run game looks in some basic categories.
Steelers’ Rushing Offense (Weeks 4-6)
Rush Attempts – 13th (81)
Rushing Yards – 17th (328)
Yards Per Carry – 21st (4.1)
Is it the greatest ground game in the world? Far from it. But it sure feels like it considering where this team started at. The O-line’s improvement is one reason for that. So is Harris’ play and the confidence Tomlin gave him with that motivational decline.
“It made me feel even more confident in what I could do,” Harris said of Tomlin’s response not to watch tape with him. “Because I watched this guy on TV when I was little. Him telling me I could do it and believe in me and everyone believed in me gave me more confidence.”
Harris is carrying that believing attitude over to the guys who block for him.
“Just like how Mike T, I came to Mike T and said there were things I need to work on. I told them, we’re going to get there. I believe in y’all. It’s a new line, it’s a new running back, we’re all new here, there’s a lot of rookies playing. If we all stick together, then there’s nothing that can break us apart.”
Pittsburgh’s mantra and plan all offseason was to improve the run game. All it took was some time. And a lot of belief.