Much of the focus and attention on the running game in Pittsburgh centered on second-year running back Najee Harris entering the 2022 season, as Harris came into OTAs and training camp looking much bigger — in a good way — than he did the year before.
As a rookie, Harris carried a heavy workload, so entering his second season he bulked up a bit to handle the workload even better.
Then, early on in training camp in a padded practice, Harris hurt his foot, limping off. Head coach Mike Tomlin stated Harris was stepped on, but it was later revealed that Harris was dealing with a Lisfranc injury, which kept him out of practice and out of the lineup through the preseason.
Once the bright lights came on in the regular season, Harris got off to a very slow start and looked like he was running in quick sand, which caused the Steelers offense to really bog down in the running back.
While struggling to get going, undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren emerged behind Harris, pushing him and eventually cutting into his reps. Harris then revealed he had a metal plate in his shoe to protect the injury, which was slowing him. Once that was removed, Harris looked like a different player.
That was especially true coming out of the Week 9 bye week. Since the Week 9 bye, Harris looked like a completely different animal at running back, closer to the guy the Steelers expected with the 24th pick in the 2021 NFL Draft than the guy they saw early in the 2022 season.
Down the stretch, Harris rushed for 677 of his 1,033 yards on the season after the Week 9 bye on 164 carries, scoring six touchdowns in the process. Based on those numbers, Harris averaged 4.13 yards per carry after the bye week, helping the Steelers average 146 yards per game on the ground, good for seventh in the league. Prior to the bye week, the Steelers averaged 94.9 rush yards per game, which was 25th in the NFL.
For Tomlin, those early-season struggles and subsequent second-half improvement from Harris weren’t surprising, and were likely due to him not being part of the on-field team-building process in training camp and the preseason due to the injury.
“Certainly the missed time and team development slowed him down. I don’t know that he played in any preseason games and things of that nature,” Tomlin stated to reporters, according to video via the Steelers official YouTube page. “He’s a young guy. The skill relative to his position needs to be developed and honed in an effort to be game ready. And so, he got on a moving train that was well documented.
“I thought he got better with each passing day. He’s a mentally tough guy. He’s a competitor,” Tomlin added. “And so, I just thought his play got consistently better throughout. But, I also kind of expected it to based on those reasonable variables and circumstances.”
While it might be seen as an excuse, not getting work in the preseason with new linemen in more of a zone scheme than a power scheme this season really hindered Harris. He wasn’t seeing the field well early in the season, was too hesitant and wasn’t trusting his linemen.
He was critical of himself entering the bye week, stating that he was the one that needed to play better, not the offensive line. He backed up those words — and then some — in the second half of the season, eventually eclipsing 1,000 yards for the second straight season, making Steelers history in the process.
With a strong finish to his second season behind him, hopefully Harris can carry it over into the 2023 season as the Steelers looked to remain one of the top rushing attacks in football next season.