The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered their second-straight defeat of the 2021 NFL regular season in Week 3. Losing at home again, this time to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Steelers moved the football in the second half but could only manage three points on the scoreboard.
One player who has a significant role in the Steelers offense is rookie running back Najee Harris. But Harris’ contributions come more than just in taking handoffs. Looking at how the Steelers can utilize Najee Harris in other ways is the topic of this week’s vertex.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Even though this particular vertex is focusing on what Najee Harris does beyond the run game, I’m going to start with his rushing stats. With 123 yards on 40 rushing attempts through three games, Harris has had 28 carries where he was hit at or behind the line of scrimmage this season according to Pro Football Focus. This means that on 70% of Harris’ rushing attempts, he is not getting a chance to gain positive yardage unless he does so on his own. On his 40 carries, Harris has gained zero or negative yards on eight attempts (six were negative, two were zero yards). So while Harris is getting hit for no gain or worse 70% of the time, he’s getting positive yardage 80% of the time. Of course, the statistics only count on plays that weren’t called back due to a penalty, with the exception of one of Harris’ runs on Sunday which, instead of a 10-yard gain, officially was counted as a 3-yard rush as the hold (or at least what was called a hold) occurred 3 yards down the field.
As for his contributions in the passing game, Harris had six receptions on eight targets for 47 yards going into Week 3. As you may have already heard, Harris exploded in the passing game for the Steelers where he was targeted 19 times with 14 receptions for 102 yards against the Bengals. This gives Harris 149 receiving yards on 20 receptions for the season, which means he has 26 more receiving yards than rushing yards or exactly half the number of receptions and he has carries. Additionally, his lone touchdown of the season was a 25-yard reception.
As for Harris’ other contributions, according to PFF he has 17 snaps when he was asked to pass block and six snaps where he was a run blocker. Showing how unreliable PFF grades are, Harris was given a poor run blocking score against the Bengals of 30.7 while being deemed to be run blocking on zero snaps in the game. If someone can explain that to me, I will gladly listen (or maybe Geoffrey will take care of it).
So how is Harris getting involved in both the passing game both as a receiver and a blocker? Is this the best way to utilize him? Let’s check the film.
The Film Line:
A bad run blocking grade with no run blocking snaps, that instantly made me think of the following play, which I assume is what PFF used to judge Najee Harris’ run blocking. Is this a run blocking snap? Not technically, but it isn’t good.
Najee Harris is lined up in the slot to the bottom of the screen.
I’ll let everyone decide for themselves how PFF should look at this, but it is one ugly block attempt.
Sadly it isn’t just run blocking where Najee Harris struggles.
Najee Harris (#22) is right in front of Ben Roethlisberger.
That’s a nasty whiff. Keep your head up young man, you aren’t trying to break a tackle, you are trying to block someone. This one was costly, as that hit on Ben Roethlisberger’s arm contributed to Roethlisberger’s first interception of the game and had him shaking his arm and holding it gingerly for the rest of the game.
That’s the worst, but also the best pass blocking snap for Najee Harris I could find in Week 3. They just didn’t have him block.
Instead they had him do things like this.
Najee Harris is the second receiver in the stack to the top of the screen.
Those are good hands for a rookie running back, and he shows his typical fight once he has the ball. When you can do things like this, blocking is kind of a waste of your talent.
Having Harris block might also be less helpful to the team.
Najee Harris is the running back.
Harris draws Mike Hilton away to him as he runs out into the flat, as he knows if Najee gets the ball he needs to hit him at the catch to have any chance to bring him down. That helps clear room for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run after the catch, and it stands out that Mike Hilton finishes the tackle on Smith-Schuster, but only after Smith-Schuster converts on 2nd and 15. If he isn’t worried about Harris, the Steelers are facing third down. It gets even better than that though.
Najee Harris is the third receiver from the top of the screen.
Watch Jessie Bates (#30), the player on the goal line to the top of the screen. He is worried about Harris, and the linebacker next to him is too. That and Ben Roethlisberger taking a few steps to his right is all this play needs. The defensive end starts to follow the QB, letting Kevin Dotson move up and block the linebacker right as he figures out what is coming. With 6 defenders heading to the right where only 4 Steelers are, Freiermuth only has to beat one defender to score, and Freiermuth is up for that challenge.
The Bengals, like the Raiders and Bills before them, paid a lot of attention to Najee Harris. For good reason too, as he showed how dangerous he is in space multiple times in this game.
Najee Harris is the running back.
It takes seven attempts to bring down Najee Harris on this 20+ yard gain (the flag is for roughing the passer, no hold on this one). Najee Harris reliably breaks the first tackle attempt he sees, and that means defenses cannot just put a man on him and call it a day, because that defender isn’t very likely to contain Harris at all, let alone stop him from gaining yards.
Najee Harris’ threat as a receiver is impactful. That should make the Steelers game plan clear. Harris as a blocker is not good right now, Harris as a receiver is a game changer. Keep running him out into space and leave the blocking to players who don’t draw multiple defenders or break big plays reliably.
If the Pittsburgh Steelers are continuing struggle running the football, then finding a way to utilize Najee Harris for the weapon that he is will be very important moving forward. If Harris is going to be continually hit behind the line of scrimmage on 70% of his carries, then getting him the ball in space as part of the passing game is a great option. Also, if Harris struggles as a blocker, perhaps forcing the defense to account for him in the passing game will take away a player who would otherwise rush the passer. In other words, rather than make Najee Harris have to make the block on someone, make that person or another player have to cover Harris instead. Most importantly, it doesn’t always have to be Harris getting the ball in the passing game, but if teams must account for him and the threat that he is, it can open up other things for the Steelers struggling offense.