The 2021 season may not have given Pittsburgh Steelers fans what they wanted—hey, a postseason victory would have been nice, just saying—but it did provide an iconic moment in franchise history with the way Heinz Field was able to send off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after 18 seasons building that stadium into what it is, which included 93 wins on that field, the third-most for any quarterback on any stadium in NFL history.
One wonders of one moment in that game in particular will ultimately transcend even the Roethlisberger narrative, however. That would be the game-clinching breakaway 37-yard touchdown run from rookie running back Najee Harris on 3rd and 2 with 1:14 to play, which put the Steelers up 26-14. It was a moment that felt like a possible changing of the guard.
The Roethlisberger era is officially over, after he officially announced his retirement last week. Will Najee Harris personify the next chapter? It’s highly unlikely that’s going to be 18 seasons long, or perhaps even close, but right now, he feels like the face of the offense. And that moment was enough to even have reporters asking Roethlisberger after the game if it felt like a passing of the torch of some kind.
Harris was already having a career game up to that point. He had 151 yards on 27 carries, and was starting to more consistently pop off seven- and eight-yard runs. He opened the second half with a dominant 30-yard run that featured an exclamatory stiff-arm, which at the time was the longest run of his career.
You could see the emotion on Roethlisberger’s face when he broke that run and understanding what that meant, not just for the game, not just for the moment, but for the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers. On the sideline, he pulled Harris aside, and as we see in yesterday’s installment of The Standard, he told him, “I’m so proud of you. I’m just so excited to watch you play football. I’m so proud of you”. (Link here, since the Steelers’ YouTube page blocks embedding)
As if you don’t know by now, Harris was the Steelers’ first-round draft choice in 2021, chosen 24th overall. He finished his rookie season with exactly 1,200 rushing yards on 307 rushing attempts with seven touchdowns, in addition to 75 receptions for 467 yards and three more touchdowns. He had zero fumbles on a league-leading 381 touches, with 1,667 yards from scrimmage.
And he did that behind a rather makeshift offensive line that featured two mid-round rookies, a second-year mid-round pick, a veteran free agent on the down side, and the guy who lost the starting right tackle job two years earlier (and he was arguably their best lineman this year).
What can Harris do for this Steelers offense if they actually successfully rebuild that offensive line? It should be their number one priority, because chances are low they’re going to stumble back asswards into a franchise quarterback right away.
In the meantime, we can all sit at home like Roethlisberger will be doing with his children and be excited to watch him play. As far as I’m concerned, that, first and foremost, is what football is all about.