Coming into the 2021 season, Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie running back Najee Harris was rated as one of the top running backs in the NFL overall by NFL.com’s Maurice Jones-Drew — a former 9-year NFL running back in his own right.
It’s safe to say MJD knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the position he spent nearly a decade playing at the highest level.
The expectations were that Harris would be a massive focal point of the Steelers offense, the run game would be improved and the star running back out of the University of Alabama would hit the ground running in the NFL, much like he did in college.
That hasn’t been the case though as Harris, a rebuilt offensive line and a offense loaded with talent at the skill positions has struggled throughout the first six games of the season, resulting in a 3-3 mark for the Steelers heading into the bye week.
However, in recent weeks Harris and the offensive line have shown signs of life, resulting in the Steelers winning two straight games after dropping three in a row, getting back to .500 while providing some hope coming out of the bye week.
Harris put up a career-high 122 rushing yards on 23 carries against the Denver Broncos in Week 5, earning him a spot back inside MJD’s top 15 running backs list, which is dubbed the RB Index week-to-week. Then, on Sunday night Harris rushed for 81 yards on 24 carries and added a receiving touchdown in the overtime win.
His performance in Week 6 earned him a bump up in MJD’s RB Index for Week 7, even with the rookie running back on the shelf due to the Steelers’ bye week. Harris now sits at No. 11 on MJD’s index.
“Pittsburgh was smart to continue riding the rookie running back against the Seahawks, with Harris chipping in on the ground and through the air,” MJD writes. “He finished with 127 scrimmage yards on 30 touches, including a 5-yard TD reception to start the scoring in the first quarter. It’s not a coincidence that the Steelers’ offense has played better over the past two weeks with Harris getting more burn, and hopefully, they don’t forget to follow the working formula after the bye.”
It certainly isn’t a coincidence that the Steelers are playing better offensively with Harris getting more work, but it’s not all a credit to the rookie. The offensive line has been better, Ben Roethlisberger has connected on a few more downfield throws, and first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada is getting into a rhythm as a play-caller.
While Harris needs to continue to be the workhorse, the Steelers would be wise to give him more breaks here and there, especially once Anthony McFarland returns to the roster. Currently, Harris is on pace for some 385 combined carries and receptions, which is a staggering workload for a rookie.
He can undoubtedly handle that workload, but if the Steelers want to be competing at their best down the stretch in search of a playoff berth, they’ll need Harris as fresh and healthy as possible.