The Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game came alive last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, as the team rushed for over 200 yards for the first time since December of 2016. For Najee Harris, the team’s 2021 first-round running back, this was his best statistical outing of the season. Harris had a season-high 20 carries on Sunday, and was asked about what the increase in volume of carries meant to him on a Friday interview according to Steelers.com.
“For a running back, the more carriers you get, the more fuel you get from the game,” Harris said when asked about his higher volume of carries. “When you start getting more, the defense starts decreasing because of the amount of time that you’re imposing your will on them. Throughout the game, obviously it’s gonna be a little more stuff there, especially throughout the fourth quarter. At the end of the day, I’m not the coach, so whatever’s called, I just execute it.”
Harris is right in that running the ball effectively and often wears defenses out. In the team’s last drive of the game, he got four important carries that helped close out the game. His 99 yards and five yards per attempt were also his best of the season. Harris showed fundamental improvement as a player, and the Steelers finding new ways to run the ball helped him out. Of course, the Steelers’ offensive line also had one of their best run blocking outings of the season, as the unit is improving chemistry every game with more playing time.
Ever since undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren made the roster, Harris’ carries have declined in his sophomore season. The second year running back went from 18.06 rush attempts per game in 2021 to 14.22 so far this season. While 20 carries is a season high for him, he had eight games with 20 or more carries last season. Harris, who led the league in touches his rookie season, embraced the split in carries before the season.
If Harris’ rookie season tells us anything, it’s that giving him 20 or more carries is not necessarily a recipe for success, as he only surpassed 100 yards in three of his eight games with said attempts. However, this rushing attack looked new and improved on Sunday, and the split in carries was successful in changing the pace and allowing Harris open lanes. The team also ran out of the pistol formation, which was by all means an effective adjustment. Six different players for the Steelers got rush attempts against the Saints, and four of them had over 20 yards. From quarterback scrambles to end around to the receivers, finding new ways to run the ball may just be the way to get Harris going. After all, the opposing defenses will be less prepared for Harris if there are other rushing threats to prepare for.
With a few exceptions, workhorse running backs do not yield a top rushing attack in the modern NFL. Splitting carries between different players is a more proven method, which the Steelers appear to have embraced. In fact, the Chicago Bears, who have the best run game in the NFL, have three players with over 100 carries. If Harris and the Steelers can emulate any approximation of last Sunday’s performance on the ground consistently, they will be a hard team to beat.