A key part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-half turnaround has been the emergence of their run game. Pittsburgh’s desire to run the ball effectively is no longer just theory. It’s action. And not a moment too soon, allowing the Steelers to get back into the thick of the playoff race.
Since the bye, this run game has looked completely different. That’s reflective of their starting RB, Najee Harris, who has done the same 180.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Matt Canada admitted Harris looks much improved compared to the first half of the year.
“Naj has gotten healthy and the way he’s running the football now is a drastic difference from the way it was early on. That’s starting with the line. It’s not just Naj, but I think you see that.”
It’s clear as day to see. Harris suffered a foot injury on his second carry of padded training camp practices, missing nearly the rest of the summer. He returned for the preseason finale but suffered another foot injury, or possibly an aggravation, in Week One against the Cincinnati Bengals. He and the rest of the Steelers’ run game slogged its way through the first half of the year wanting to run the ball but being unable to. Some of that fell on the Steelers’ young and growing offensive line. But the backs did them little favors. Harris wasn’t running downhill and was trying to dance, to be an elusive back, like on this play where instead of running straight ahead to pick up the first dance, he moved East/West and stopped short of the sticks.
That guy? Yeah, you don’t see him anymore. On the other side of the bye, Harris got healthy and has run like it. Since Week 10, Harris is averaging 4.2 yards per carry compared to his pre-bye average of just 3.3. Six of his seven rushing scores have also come since the bye and Harris has put on repeatedly strong performances, running hard, breaking tackles, and pushing the pile forward. He had another impressive showing Sunday night against the Ravens, responsible for 111 of the team’s 198 rushing yards. It was his first 100-yard game of the season.
No question an improving offensive line and Jaylen Warren’s emergence has been good for Harris. But his own health and run demeanor has been the biggest difference in his game. Though the team downplayed Harris’ injury early in the season, Canada even admits it was a factor.
“There’s trust with Naj, he’s hitting the hole, he’s seeing the hole. I do think there was a little bit of his health. He would say that to us, and he’s a tough guy that was playing.”
Pittsburgh will try to ride its run game to another victory this weekend against a relatively soft Cleveland Browns’ run defense. The Browns are giving up nearly five yards per carry with their front office criticized for not reinforcing their interior defensive line during the offseason. The Steelers’ gameplan will remain the same with a healthy Harris running angry, running downhill, and trying to run the team into postseason play.