One key factor in the Pittsburgh Steelers staying alive in the AFC playoff picture down the stretch and ultimately punching their ticket in Week 18 was the vastly improved rushing attack led by rookie running back Najee Harris.
Harris certainly didn’t do it all alone, but it was quite clear he was starting to have significant success on the ground in the stretch run, providing some balance to an offense that had struggled all season long.
In three of the final five games of the season, Harris rushed for at least 90 yards. Against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 14 on Thursday Night Football, Harris rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries in a 36-28 loss. In Week 16 against the Kansas City Chiefs, Harris rushed for 93 yards on 19 carries, and then followed that up with a career-high 188 yards (181 after contact) and a touchdown on 28 carries in a 26-14 win against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
Though he did have two clunkers in there against the Tennessee Titans (18 yards on 12 carries) and Baltimore Ravens (28 yards on 11 carries), it’s clear the run game has found its stride, and it’s occurred with some backups playing key roles in the trenches in left guard John Leglue and center JC Hassenauer.
On Friday, Harris spoke to reporters during his weekly media availability and credited the entire run-game unit having a better understanding of assignments in helping unlock success on the ground.
“I think it’s an establishment of…everybody executing their jobs,” Harris said Friday, according to video via Steelers.com. “It’s an understanding of everybody understanding their assignments and believing in each other that, if I do this part then, you know, the left guard’s gonna do this thing. The center’s gonna do that. The running back’s gonna press the hole and make the cut. The running back’s gonna be more decisive.
“So I think it’s a better understanding of us just executing our jobs more. You know what I mean?” Harris added. “We’re getting a better feel. You know what I mean? We’re meeting a lot more, we’re creating a bond. We’re seeing like all the assignments and what we can do if we execute it.”
Harris’s comments match up with the comments that Hassenauer made after the win over the Browns, crediting new offensive line coach Chris Morgan for the all-hands-on-deck approach he took once Adrian Klemm left for Oregon.
“One thing we did do, we incorporated a lot more outside guys into the meetings,” he told reporters Jan. 5 via Steelers.com. “We had some tight end meetings. We had the running backs in there as well. So, I think that kind of helped everyone kind of get a bigger grasp and better understanding of the full run game that week.”
Though that all-in approach didn’t quite lead to success against the Ravens in Week 18, it’s important to note that the Steelers were able to trot Chris Boswell onto the field for the game-winning 36-yard field goal after Harris ripped off a 15-yard run off left tackle behind a key block from wide receiver Chase Claypool, showing that the entire offensive unit is all in on the rushing attack and moving as one unit.