Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris was rather protective of the reputation of his receiving skills coming out of college, even snapping back at reports suggesting that he improved significant as a pass-catcher during his college season because it implied that he wasn’t as good earlier in his college career.
Yet whenever he talks about his receptions since arriving in the NFL, he make sure to point out that the targets that he gets are not by design, and in fact, it’s a good thing for the offense when he’s not getting the ball.
“I think people get a lot of stuff misconstrued. I get checkdowns. It’s not like it’s a play built-in for me”, he told reporters on Friday when asked about his role as a receiver in the offense. “I’m the last read. I’m a checkdown. These past couple games I haven’t been getting the ball because—that’s a good thing!—they’re not throwing it to the checkdown. Maybe they’re airing it out”.
In addition to carrying the ball 26 times against the Detroit Lions on Sunday, Harris was targeted four times during the Steelers’ last game. He caught all four passes for 28 yards. The week before that, he caught three out of three passes for 16 yards. It was three-for-three the week before, as well.
“It’s not like there’s plays for the past couple games built-in for me to get the ball. It was just, I was the checkdown route”, he said. “Just like the Bengals game, everybody was saying, like, they were designing passes for me. It was like, no, I was the checkdown route. I was just the checkdown, the last read when he makes his reads”.
The Bengals game he refers to was back in Week 3. He caught 14 passes during the game, a record for a Steelers running back, for 102 yards, though he also dropped a few passes. But he emphasized even then that those passes were checkdowns, and not designed played to give him the ball.
“The past couple games, they haven’t gotten to the last read because other people have been open, so that’s a good thing”, the rookie back said. “Hopefully it’s just like that. But if the ball does come to me, I’ll make the best I can”.
Outside of the occasional drop, Harris has been an asset as a receiving option, even if as a checkdown release valve. He has caught 44 passes in nine games, putting up 317 yards as he nears 1,000 from scrimmage on the year. He also has two receiving touchdowns in addition to his four rushing touchdowns, and is averaging about five catches per game.