The Steelers selected Alabama running back Najee Harris with their first pick of the 2021 NFL draft Thursday night. Early reactions suggest it is a polarizing pick. While many fans are thrilled to add him to the Steelers’ shallow pool of running backs, others believe they would have been better served choosing a player like Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins or Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, both of whom were available when the Steelers selected. Regardless, Pittsburgh got the consensus top-rated running back in the draft at a position where they lack a qualified starter.
I’ve argued consistently this off-season that the Steelers needed to invest a top pick in a running back, so I’m neither surprised nor disappointed Harris is the choice. I’ve broken him down on several occasions before. You can read one of those breakdown in the article below. The Steelers are no doubt bringing Harris to Pittsburgh to be their starter and every-down back. Therefore, rather than cherry-pick clips from various games, this article focuses on a single game so we can examine what Harris does well and where he struggles over the course of a sixty-minute contest.
The game I’ve chosen is Alabama’s 31-7 victory over Notre Dame in the 2021 Rose Bowl in which Harris rushed 15 times for 125 yards and caught 4 passes for 30 yards. It was neither his best nor worst performance of the season. It’s a good game to evaluate, though, because it showcased both his strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s take a look.
12:30 1st quarter, no score
On Alabama’s second offensive play of the game, quarterback Mac Jones could not find a target down the field and dropped a throw to Harris (#22) in the flat. Harris ran a check-release concept, looking first to help on an interior pass rusher before slipping out of the backfield into his route. He caught the football easily and burst ahead for a first down:
Notice how Harris finished the run by barreling over a Notre Dame defender. The natural catching ability, quickness in the open field and physical running style are all attractive features of Harris’s game. He will be a comparable receiver to departed starter James Conner and an upgrade as a pure runner.
11:21 1st quarter, no score
Pass protection, however, is another story. This is an area where Conner was proficient and where Harris, at this point in his development, struggles.
Here, Harris is tasked with picking up a blitz. That’s Owusu-Koremoah (#6) coming through the left B-gap, along with an inside backer. Alabama protects with a four-man slide into the boundary while their right tackle locks on to the edge rusher. That leaves Harris responsible for any stunt to the field. Notre Dame makes his job difficult by sending two players to the same gap (all the rage in blitz schemes these days). Harris should pick up the inside rusher since he has the most direct path to Jones. But he seems confused about who to block and winds up blocking no one:
Jones manages to scramble away and complete a short throw to the sideline. But Harris has to be more decisive here. While Notre Dame did a nice job creating a plus-one away from Alabama’s slide protection, Harris has to understand that, if he isn’t sure who to block, he should get a body on the first man who shows to offer some protection for his quarterback.
Later, Harris gets over-powered in protection. This is simply not physical enough and will get him put on his back against a quality NFL rusher. Pass protection is the biggest weakness in Harris’s game at present, and the biggest threat to his status as an immediate every-down back in Pittsburgh:
6:30 1st quarter, 7-0 Alabama
Midway through the first quarter, Alabama started a drive at their own three yard-line. They ran a simple inside zone play, with all the linemen blocking the gap to their right. Bama’s left guard, however, failed to chip off of a double-team on the 3-tech defender, allowing the linebacker (#40) to come through untouched. The run was designed to hit in the A-gap through which the backer emerged. But Harris adjusted seamlessly. He immediately wound the run to the backside edge, then used a nice stiff-arm to nearly create a huge play:
This is a great example of the excellent vision Harris often displays. He is patient getting to the line of scrimmage but once he sees a hole he is fast through it. His style in that regard is similar to LeVeon Bell’s. Harris should not be hyped as a runner on Bell’s level but his ability to see holes, navigate clutter and find space is better than any back the Steelers have had since Bell’s glory days.
5:06 1st quarter, 7-0 Alabama
If there’s a single play that could have prompted the Steelers to select Harris, it’s this one:
That’s a 230 pound back bouncing off his own blocker, re-gathering, hurdling a defender and then sprinting away from the pursuit (he was eventually bumped out of bounds at the 15 yard line). This type of athleticism, coupled with the speed, size, vision and power Harris employs, had to be extremely attractive to the Steelers. While Clemson’s Travis Etienne was my favorite back in this draft, Etienne does not possess Harris’s game in full. That was likely the tipping point in Pittsburgh preferring Harris.
5:39 2nd quarter, 21-7 Alabama
While the previous run was spectacular, this next one may have been just as valuable in Pittsburgh’s evaluation process. It doesn’t look like much at first. Harris runs a basic split-zone concept with a nifty bootleg option attached as window dressing for the linebackers. The play is disrupted by penetration from Notre Dame’s front that muddies Harris’s ability to find a cut. Rather than panic and run into his own linemen, as we’ve seen Steelers’ running backs often do the past few years, Harris patiently jump-cuts, gets square, then winds his way through the chaos with a series of short, choppy steps. He doesn’t have a seam to escape through but he keeps finding small pockets in which to move forward. The result is a seven yard gain on a play that initially looked dead:
The value of this run is significant. Rather than face 2nd and 10, where the play-calling is difficult, Alabama had a 2nd and 3 instead. There isn’t an offensive coordinator in America who doesn’t like that situation. The splash plays are nice but if Harris can routinely make these types of runs in Pittsburgh, he will provide a huge upgrade to the rushing attack.
4:14 2nd quarter, 21-7 Alabama
There are times, though, when that patience can cause him to be indecisive. Here he is a few plays later, missing a huge window to his right to turn what could have been an effective run into a pedestrian one. Watch how, as Harris receives the handoff, he immediately stutter-steps, as if he’s anticipating having to wait for a hole to develop. This is a situation where you want him to trust his eyes. He should know that on split-zone runs like this, the cut is backside. When it pops open this quickly, there’s no need to stutter. If you think back to Harris’s strong run from near his own goal line, his quick reaction turned a dead play into a nice gain. Here, the opposite happens. By reacting slowly, he leaves yards on the field. Hopefully, as he develops a rhythm with his linemen in Pittsburgh, he will eliminate missed opportunities like this one:
3:36 2nd quarter, 21-7 Alabama
A few plays later, we see the indecisiveness again. Upon receiving a swing pass, Harris doesn’t have a lot of room to operate into the boundary. This is not going to be a big play so he would be better served making one cut, running hard and perhaps using a stiff arm to gain four or five yards. Instead, he dances around trying to juke the defender and is dropped for no gain. Knowing when to use his nimble feet to create space and when to simply lower his shoulder and hammer ahead will be a big part of Harris’s maturation.
6:20 3rd quarter, 21-7 Alabama
Inevitably, though, Harris makes far more NFL-caliber runs than high school-level mistakes. He is a smart player who understands the game. That was on display in the second half, as Alabama turned increasingly to the run to put the Irish away. Knowing the objective was to grind out first downs and tick the clock, Harris was far more decisive. He became the prototypical one-cut-and-go back, as we see below on one of my favorite runs of the game. On this one-back power play, Harris cuts away from a linebacker trying to blow a backside gap, follows his pulling guard and, rather than bouncing the play to the outside, where he could be run out of bounds, makes a smart cut up the field, squares his shoulders and bulls ahead for five yards:
Here is that decisiveness again, this time in the fourth quarter with Bama up 28-7. This is outside zone, a play we should see Harris run a lot in Matt Canada’s system. He quickly recognizes the cut, gets vertical and asserts himself. Runs like this one and the one above are not sexy but they are NFL runs. Harris might be described similarly: he’s not a particularly flashy player but his game is smart and professional.
Barring an injury or unforeseen development, Harris will be the starter at running back right out of the gate in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are in win-now mode in the dying days of Ben Roethlisberger’s career. Harris is a win-now pick. He can walk in and do almost everything they need him to on day one. He is 23 years old with a ton of college experience. Expect the Steelers to run him hard and get their money out of him.
Notice I said he can do almost everything. Harris does have holes in his game, most notably in pass protection, where he will need to be more physical. He will also have to learn the difference between patience and indecisiveness as a ball-carrier. NFL defenses are too fast to afford a running back the latter. And, if the Steelers don’t add some butt-kickers to their offensive line, it won’t matter how good Harris is. He’ll be running into the same brick walls that have stymied Pittsburgh rushers the past couple of seasons.
That said, Steelers’ fans should be excited about Harris. He’s the most talented runner they’ve had since Bell and immediately upgrades the position. Better yet, he’s the player the Steelers really wanted. This wasn’t a panic pick like Artie Burns in 2016 or a reach like some have suggested about Terrell Edmunds. There were other options on the board at pick 24. Good ones, too. But the Steelers took the player they had targeted throughout the draft process. Given their history of success with first selections — 18 of Kevin Colbert’s 21 top picks as Steelers’ general manager have been good-to-great players in Pittsburgh, with only Burns, Jarvis Jones and Ziggy Hood the exceptions — that should make Steelers’ fans feel pretty comfortable.
So, the Steelers got their man in round one of the draft. Now, as we head into day two, their challenge is to acquire some physical blockers who can open holes for him. Stay tuned, and welcome to Pittsburgh Najee Harris!