After the Pittsburgh Steelers were humiliated by the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card Game, speculation swirled much earlier than expected about what the team would address in its looming offseason. With James Conner a free agent and little firepower at the position, running back became a sure-fire need.
As March arrived and GM Kevin Colbert eschewed available backs such as Aaron Jones, Marlon Mack, Kenyan Drake and Chris Carson, it became evident that the Steelers intended to address their woeful run game in the 2021 NFL Draft.
A good portion of Steelers Nation is anguished about picking a running back in the first round, and rightfully so: the position has grown increasingly fungible in the modern NFL. Additionally, rookie runners have not fared phenomenally in their first years as pros, with Saquon Barkley the last rookie RB to earn a Pro Bowl nod in 2018.
However, who fans and analysts alike consider the presumptive pick at #24 overall—Alabama’s Najee Harris—should quell any worries, largely because he flourished in spite of an offensive line that did not perform as well as advertised.
For context, Alabama’s OL won the 2020 Joe Moore Award, a prize given to the best offensive line unit in college football.
On the surface, this would come as little surprise given that the Crimson Tide boast likely Day 2 picks in OC/OG Landon Dickerson, OT/OG Alex Leatherwood and OG Deonte Brown. Yet upon analyzing statistics, it is elucidated that Nick Saban’s offensive line wasn’t as dominant as one may have thought.
Per Football Outsiders, Alabama ranked 14th in Line Yards per Carry, a metric in which the offensive line is fully credited for the first 0-3 yards of a carry and attributed 50% for the 4th-8th yards of a run. In simpler terms, this stat measures how much “push” an OL is getting; the Crimson Tide were good, but not exceptional.
In particular, when Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian dialed up a run on non-standard rushing downs (2nd down and more than 7, 3rd and more than 4, 4th and more than 4), Alabama ranked 30th with 3.25 Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry. In other words, when a defense was more likely to expect a throw from QB Mac Jones, the Crimson Tide still couldn’t generate enough pancakes to simulate the experience at an IHOP.
Further, Alabama slotted in at 29th in Opportunity Rate, a statistic that reflects “the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak,” and creates at least 4 yards of space when a defense is primed to give up at least 4 yards. This measurable is certainly more convoluted and could implicate RBs as well, but it appears that ‘Bama struggled to generate sufficient rushing lanes based on OL play alone.
However, upon scrutinizing numbers that directly invoke the intangibles of a running back, the Crimson Tide generally ranked much higher.
Alabama was 5th in Power Success Rate, as 90.3% of its “runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go” earned a touchdown or first down and were successful, per se. Also, Saban’s squad was 12th in Stuff Rate, indicating that few rushes gained 0 or negative yardage.
Why would the Crimson Tide have performed better on short-yardage carries and have had few fully futile runs? It isn’t because its offensive line blocked any better; rather, it’s the Najee Harris Factor. Harris’ physicality and burliness proved especially effective in “plunge” situations and also made him tough for defenders to tackle behind the sticks.
The concept that Harris continually manufactured yards is certainly corroborated on tape. In arguably his most famous run, the 2020 Doak Walker Award winner broke a tote to the outside and hurdled Notre Dame’s Nick McCloud (seemingly, no relation to the Steelers’ own Ray-Ray), jumping like an Irish tap dancer at 6’2”.
While the climax of the play was undoubtedly its highlight, the beginning is important to consider, too. Harris (circled in red) actually had very little room to run; the carry arguably should have gained negative yards, as the Irish had several defenders in the backfield.
Yet Harris persevered, implemented his Le’Veon Bell-esque patience and broke the ball outside for an unforgettable play.
Another phenomenal situation in which Harris had a big gain in spite of poor blocking was against Ole Miss. In the image below, Harris intended to power through the B gap between Brown and Leatherwood, yet it was plugged instantaneously.
Instead of surrendering for no gain, Harris utilized stutter steps and a jump cut to position himself outside, then added another cut, stiff-arm and truck to drag his defender for additional yardage.
Finally, I’ll posit this clip, one of the many that left my jaw ajar in scouting Harris.
I genuinely understand why Steelers fans may furrow their eyebrows at picking an RB in the first round, especially in recent memory. With the Chiefs in 2020, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had just 803 yards in the regular season and got only 15 carries in the postseason. Seattle’s Rashaad Penny and New England’s Sony Michel both have murky, opaque futures with their respective teams after failing to live up to expectations.
But the Steelers have no choice but to fix their issues at running back through the Draft—especially in the first round—especially after having only 4 games with a 100-yard rusher in 2020 and no clear nor even decent RB1 in 2021.
Ultimately, there’s no better prospect for Pittsburgh to return to its gashing ground game than Harris, Alabama’s all-time leading rusher whose 1,891-yard, 30-touchdown senior season becomes magnified considering his offensive line was far from otherworldly.