Attempting to make an impact in the running game has been a slow, tedious, and unrewarding process so far for Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris. He has picked up just 123 rushing yards on 40 carries, barely over three yards per rush. 30 of his 40 attempts have gained fewer than four yards; of those, 25 were run fails.
But he has been able to keep himself productive thanks to his ability to serve as a checkdown outlet for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has already, clearly, established a level of trust in his rookie back. He just set a franchise record for receptions in a game by a running back with 14, even though it just sort of happened.
“The passes I caught, it was no designed route where I get it, it was just mostly checkdowns”, he told reporters on Friday. “That stat is kind of…I know I caught a lot of passes, but I think everybody’s blowing it out of proportion. It’s just a lot of checkdowns”.
Still, he caught 14 passes for 102 yards, and the week before, he caught five passes for 43 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown. And while he is mostly fielding checkdowns, they have had him in receiving alignments somewhat regularly, about 10 times per game, either in the slot or out wide. And that’s something he welcomes.
“I’m out there, I’m lined up out wide. I am in the route concept”, he said. “Do I feel comfortable? Of course, I feel comfortable. I think I would want that. I would want to be some type of threat in any way, even if it’s catching the ball. So, yeah, I feel comfortable for sure”.
“It’s not new”, he added. “I did that in college, so it was nothing really new”.
Harris did catch 43 passes during his senior season at Alabama last year, gaining 425 yards and scoring four touchdowns. He scored seven touchdowns as a receiver the year before that on 27 receptions for 304 yards.
The Steelers have used their running backs in the passing game a lot more over the past decade, really starting with Le’Veon Bell in 2013, who in his second season a year later caught 83 passes for 854 yards in his only 2000-yards-from-scrimmage season.
Will Pittsburgh get Harris more involved as a ‘receiver’ in the passing game—that is, targeting more while he is actually running routes from a receiving alignment, rather than leaking out of the backfield as a checkdown option? It’s an opportunity that he would welcome, but not one he’s depending on.