The Pittsburgh Steelers had four 100-yard rushers within their first five games of the 2020 season. They did not have another one until a year later, in the fifth game of the 2021 season, and only one player between the offensive line and the running back is the same as it was then.
With four of their five starters from last season either retiring, moving on in free agency, or waived with an injury, and starting runner James Conner also gone in free agency, the entire running game was pretty much uprooted and rebuilt. That includes new coaches at offensive coordinator and the offensive line.
They invested a first-round pick in running back Najee Harris, who had a total of 185 rushing yards on 55 carries in his first four games. Today, he rushed for 122 yards on 23 carries. And he gave the credit to his offensive line, which includes two draft classmates.
“I’m more than excited about what everybody’s doing in the offensive line room, especially Coach [Adrian] Klemm, and how KG [Kendrick Green] and Dan [Moore Jr.], because they’re rookies”, he told reporters after today’s win. “They really stepped up. From week one all the way to now, you can really see the improvement on tape”.
The Steelers did actually run the ball reasonably well last week. They just didn’t run it much, and even head coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged last Tuesday that he wanted to see more quantity, which he got today. They did have 62 yards on just 15 carries from Harris a week ago, but today he nearly doubled the yardage on about 50 percent more carries.
“I know that I said a lot that the stat sheet doesn’t look like it, but all of us running backs can tell how much they’re improving”, he said of his offensive line. “To come out here and do how good they did, I feel like this whole press conference should be more about them than me, because they did an amazing job. I told them that every time that we got on the sideline, even in the game, of how good they were doing”.
Aside from the rookies, Green and Moore, there is Kevin Dotson, a second-year player at left guard who started four games due to injury last season. Trai Turner was signed after David DeCastro was waived injured, himself a former perennial Pro Bowler who is sort of rediscovering his game. Chukwuma Okorafor is the lone holdover, who started 16 games, also at right tackle, last season, though that was only after Zach Banner tore his ACL in the opener.
The Steelers’ running game, and the offensive line, has now stacked two weeks on top of each other showing growth. Today’s game would be an acceptable performance on the ground without any qualification, not just ‘good for being a bunch of rookies in a new offense’. If they can build off of today’s showing, then their offseason strategy will certainly have to be reevaluated after the initial kneejerk responses.