In a big game with potential playoff implications, not to mention serious bragging rights in a heated AFC North rivalry matchup, Pittsburgh Steelers second-year running back Najee Harris put up arguably his best performance of his career.
In a 16-13 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football in Week 17 on the road, Harris rushed for a game-high 111 yards on 22 carries and added the game-winning 10-yard touchdown reception from rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett on a scramble drill play, slipping up the left sideline behind Ravens linebacker Roquan Smith for the game-winning touchdown.
While the play from Pickett to Harris will be remembered for a long, long time, Harris’ best work came on the ground in the tough, physical matchup, churning out the 111 yards in impressive fashion, playing “possessed” — as NBC color analyst Chris Collinsworth said — against the Ravens’ stout run defense.
Coming into the Week 17 matchup, the Ravens were allowing just 87.5 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the NFL. The last time the Steelers and Ravens met in Week 14 at Acrisure Stadium, the Steelers rushed for just 65 yards as a team. That all changed in Week 17 as the Steelers dominated the Ravens at the point of attack, rushing for 198 yards in the win.
For Harris, it showed that he is fully back to health and the closest thing to what he was at Alabama before entering the NFL in 2021.
It started right away on Sunday night, too. There was just a different feel with Harris running the football. He’s always been a determined runner, but he looked more explosive and urgent Sunday night.
Near the end of the opening drive for the Steelers, Harris showed it was going to be a different night for the big, bruising back with one simple leap over a down lineman in the backfield.
Harris is known to hurdle defenders with regularity but rarely do we see him jump over a player on the ground in the backfield like he did here. You can see the urgency in pressing towards the line with the carry, wanting to get north and south in a hurry to pick up the yardage that was there and made sure the pile fell forward.
A few plays later near the end of the drive, Harris showed off impressive body control to get back inside of a Mason Cole block, get his shoulders pointing back downhill and finished off the drive with force.
It’s hard to describe overall, but he just looks different right now. Confidence within his game is sky-high, especially considering where he was earlier in the season. He’s receiving some of the best blocking he’s had in the NFL in the last eight weeks or so, give or take, and is really starting to find his groove as that workhorse running back in a run-heavy offense in the NFL.
Sunday night was his true coming-out party, more so than the Week 17 win over the Cleveland Browns in 2021 in Ben Roethlisberger’s final game, in which Harris rushed for 188 yards.
There was just a different feel to Harris Sunday night. He was a runaway train coming downhill over and over again, bludgeoning the Ravens’ defensive front, taking advantage of good running lanes thanks to great blocking up front as well.
Too often during the first half of the season, Harris was indecisive and wasn’t seeing the holes well. That all changed in the Week 9 bye. Now, he’s putting his foot in the ground and getting downhill in a hurry, taking advantage of time and space to pick his way through the defense.
Watch the footwork there from Harris, especially in the backfield. The crossover to work left, and then the vision to see Dan Moore Jr. setting up his block, allowing Harris to cut back to his right and finish the run strong, picking up a chunk of yards. That’s exactly how the Steelers envisioned playing this season and now it’s coming to fruition.
There’s just a real decisiveness to his game right now, which was on display a ton throughout the game against the Ravens. With decisiveness comes confidence for a running back, especially when there’s the type of time and space available that Harris saw on Sunday night.
He was galloping through space, running like his hair was on fire. A real urgency to his game in the big moment. The Steelers fed off of that, especially up front in the trenches.
Like a Clydesdale getting moving, Harris really gets rolling in the open field and becomes a real problem to deal with. The jump-cut here to get to the outside and into green grass is rather impressive, and then the way he finishes the run is pure Najee. He’s going to dish out punishment and take at least two guys to get him down.
That wears on a defense, and you can see it after the play with a guy like Roquan Smith, who is very clearly frustrated.
Harris’ best run of the night came on what has become a staple for the Steelers. Split zone, Jet motion, read the zone blocking and find space.
That’s exactly what Harris did here, pushing vertical initially squeezing inside the block of rookie tight end Connor Heyward before then hitting the cutback and getting back across to the left side of the field where penny of space awaited him.
At the end of the run, Harris doesn’t look to go out of bounds, instead throwing a stiff arm into the chest of safety Chuck Clark, looking to dish out punishment at the end of it. Linemen love that, teammates respect it, and guys simply feed off of it.
That’s what Harris brings, and when he fights for every single available piece of grass, it’s contagious for the offense.
While he’s not putting up the eye-popping numbers with long runs and explosive plays like other backs across the NFL, the style in which Harris played on Sunday night and has largely played since the bye week for the Steelers has fed directly into their impressive run in recent weeks, getting them back into the playoff picture.
It’s not flashy and certainly won’t be considered one of the best run games in football, but it’s effective and is exactly the way the Steelers want to play. And when the starting running back is playing “possessed” like he did Sunday night on the big stage…look out.