Najee Harris became the first player in Pittsburgh Steelers history to record 1,000 yards from scrimmage in his first 10 career games on Sunday. It just so happened to come in one of his most unremarkable games of the season, and in a loss, but the rookie running back accomplished that feat, all the same.
And it does illustrate just how important he has been to this offense since arriving this season as a first-round pick out of Alabama. He is up to 188 rushing attempts on the season for 685 yards with five touchdowns, in addition to 49 receptions for another 337 yards and two more touchdowns. He and fellow rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth are actually one and two in scoring on this team. But it’s Najee who is the straw that stirs the drink, the way Le’Veon Bell was before him.
“He’s a big component” of the offense, defensive captain Cameron Heyward observed on Sunday, “whether it’s running, blocking, passing. “He’s a three-down back, and he can play in all phases. He’s a great stabilizer for the run game, and it takes more than one guy to tackle him. You’ve got to stack the box with him”.
Harris only got 12 carries on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, for 39 yards, but that included a one-yard touchdown, his sixth touchdown in the past seven games. He also added another five receptions for 20 more yards, now at an NFL-leading 237 touches on the season for 1,022 yards from scrimmage.
Even though his efficiency numbers are not going to jump out at you—at all. However, Harris has been a high performer who has been working with often shaky help in terms of blocking, particularly from an offensive line that, let’s say, still needs some work, and which is currently dealing with injuries.
According to Pro Football Focus, for example, nobody has forced more missed tackles this season than has Harris, with 58 in total—33 rushing (fifth-most) and 25 receiving (most in the NFL). Only six players have a higher elusive rating, with the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb at the top. And that’s no surprise to Heyward.
“The cool thing is, during training camp, you blow up a play, and you think it’s for a tackle for loss. But Najee’s always fighting for extra yards, and he’ll shake you out of the hole”, Heyward said of Harris earlier this month. “I remember getting pretty annoyed, pretty pissed off at myself that he was getting out of it. Now that I’m looking back, I’m glad he’s doing it now. Glad he’s on my sideline”.
Considering the rest of the Steelers’ running back room, it’s hard to imagine what this offense would look like without the rookie, who will hopefully have the numbers he deserves if the front office can get this offensive line fixed in the next couple of years.