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Why hasn’t Najee Harris fixed the Steelers run game?

The Steelers spent a first-round pick on a running back, why is the run game still terrible?

Las Vegas Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Through 5 games of the 2020 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers ranked ninth in the NFL with 684 rushing yards, averaging 136.8 yards per game. The rest of the 2020 season the Steelers would rush for 667 yards, 60.6 yards per game, bad enough to finish the season ranked last in the NFL.

What happened? Two big things. First, the offensive line play declined with nagging injuries and age, and second, teams stopped respecting the Steelers deep passing game and started running single high safety against them, allowing them to have 1 more defender in the box than the Steelers had blockers.

In 2021 the Steelers have rushed for 114 yards, the worst mark in the NFL, an average of 57 yards per game.

The reason? For that we’ll go to the film.

I want to be clear that offensive line blocking is one of the hardest parts of the game to break down, I asked BTSC deputy editor Michael Beck if he was going to do any offensive line breakdowns after he was hired as a college offensive line coach, and he said he couldn’t do it without knowing the assignments each player had.

I want to give that disclaimer because I don’t know the assignments, all I can do is tell you what I’m seeing on the film and make assumptions based on that. I am going to try to stick to what the results are of the blocking and how the results affect the play as best I can.

Dan Moore Jr. is the left tackle, Kendrick Green (#53) is the center.

This is a nice toss play, and the initial blocks are well done. But Najee Harris only gains 2 yards. Why? Because Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green both go after the same player, the deep safety on the play side (#27). Green gets hands on #24, but barely even pushes him before moving on to the safety. Meanwhile #42, the middle linebacker comes in behind Green and makes the tackle.

Najee Harris evades the tackle of #24, but it forces him inside where the middle linebacker wraps him up. Harris had two blockers going for the safety, setting up for him to make a long run outside. But #24 was able to force Harris back inside with that diving tackle attempt. If Green gets a good block on #24, Harris has a head of steam and options, instead he’s off balance and stumbles into the rest of the defense.

Trai Turner is the right guard. Kendrick Green is the center.

Trai Turner and Chukwuma Okorafor are working a combo block on Raiders DL #77, Turner is trying to get off that block and get to the middle linebacker (#52, starts the clip on the edge of the logo by the blue hypocycloid). Turner can’t get to the linebacker, and the linebacker makes the play.

Kendrick Green is blocking 340 lb. DT Johnathan Hankins (#90). Hankins drives Green back, disrupting the play design. The play looks like Najee Harris is supposed to follow Kevin Dotson, but Green is driven into that gap. You can see Green recover enough to drive his man out of that lane to the outside, but with Turner unable to reach the linebacker, it’s irrelevant at that point. If one of those two makes their designed blocks this run gains yards, if both are able to it gains more. Instead Najee Harris is fighting just to get close to the line of scrimmage.

But not every run was bad.

That’s a 14-yard run on second and ten. The Raiders are in single high safety, but the formation has the Raiders corner to the top of the screen as the guy the Steelers aren’t going to worry about blocking. It’s a nice design to negate the +1 defender from running single high safety. Every single player lands their blocks, the formation and defensive adjustment to it took the +1 defender out of the play and it is the free safety who comes up and makes the tackle after a 14 yard gain.

When the Steelers blockers execute the scheme at a high level of success, Najee Harris is going to be a really successful back.

The execution doesn’t have to be perfect either.

Watch #65 Dan Moore Jr. here. He needs to slow down the DT enough to let Kendrick Green get control of him, then give a little seal to slow down the edge rusher in backside pursuit. He does neither.

Kendrick Green can’t get the defensive tackle without successful help, but he is able to get enough of him to let the handoff succeed and Harris get past the lineman. Not perfect, but good enough.

Really good blocking on this play from Kevin Dotson, Pat Freiermuth, Chukwuma Okorafor, and from the receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool.

But Geoffrey, I hear you asking, can’t any running back have that kind of success when the blocking works?

Well I’m glad you asked.

Benny Snell is the running back.

Look at the top of the screen, Benny Snell gets past the DT and has Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green leading the way. Snell promptly cuts inside where there are two more defenders than blockers. Look at Kendrick Green’s reaction to the play. That’s all you need to know.

Chukwuma Okorafor is the right tackle, second from the bottom of the screen.

Okorafor’s job on this play is to seal the defensive tackle to his side, doesn’t have to drive him back or even hold him in place, just don’t let him get more than 2 yards upfield or to the play side. You can see the run lane between Okorafor and tight end Zack Gentry, you can see Kendrick Green and Trai Turner leading the way in that gap. You also can see #92 slip past Okorafor and right into Harris’s path, forcing Harris outside where the angle of Turner’s block prevents him from stopping #34 from getting to Najee Harris.

Watch the defensive tackle to the top of the screen, #77.

This run play has a double pull as well, and Trai Turner handles the play side defensive tackle perfectly. The problem here is Kendrick Green can’t keep #77 from moving laterally and closing off the run lane. If #77 isn’t there Najee Harris is likely bursting through a small hole and into open grass with Chukwuma Okorafor giving him help upfield. Instead Najee Harris is again fighting to gain a few yards on a play that gave him none.

The run game wasn’t working, but it also isn’t that far off from working. Every rushing attack has blown blocks, the Steelers problem right now is too many lineman messing up too many times each game, meaning only a few run plays each game have high end execution.

You can see teams are concerned about Najee Harris as a runner by how much attention he gets, and while he isn’t getting much in the way of yards, he is opening up options for other players.

Najee Harris is the running back.

This play action pass is a gorgeous play design and it shows off how much the Raiders were focusing on stopping Harris. The entire defense is thinking run defense and the Steelers have multiple open receivers because of it. Shocking to see Ben Roethlisberger actually run a play action pass here, after all the people saying he refused to run it. . .

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the wingback that comes in jet motion.

Man JuJu Smith-Schuster made that touchdown run look easier than the milk crate challenge. It wasn’t easy, but Smith-Schuster isn’t going down to one hand grabs from Maxx Crosby, and that safety didn’t even slow him down. I love how low Smith-Schuster got bending that corner, he’s the lower man and the safety has no chance. Maybe it’s a new TikTok dance move or something. . .

The Steelers run game is atrocious right now. But it also isn’t very far off from being good. With Najee Harris greatly improving the running back side of the equation, getting the Steelers young offensive line to execute even a little bit more reliably will make a lot of difference in the Steelers offense.

At this point all we can do is hope.