The Steelers offensive issues are well-documented. In this article, I don’t intend to dive into the ins and outs of all the issues, but this team needs a spark when they have the football. And believe it or not, there’s a player on the roster that has been underutilized in a very important aspect so far this season.
That player is Najee Harris. Pittsburgh’s 2021 1st Round Draft Pick has struggled mightily to get going so far in 2022 despite showing so much as a rookie playing behind a really bad offensive line (OL). The OL is a little better this year, and the Steelers have a rookie at quarterback. You’d think this would be a very Najee year, but so far, it has been a disappointment.
To be fair, a nagging foot injury has hampered his production so far this season, but he has declared himself fully healthy and ready to reassume his rookie workload. That workload included the most receptions by a running back in the NFL, with Harris racking up a whopping 74 catches on 94 targets for 467 yds to go along with 3 receiving TDs.
Ben Roethlisberger understood that if the play wasn’t there, he usually had his creative back in the flat to turn nothing into something. Sometimes even a big something. That aspect of the offense has been largely missing in 2022, with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett only targeting Harris 22 times in 7 games (18 receptions). That correlates to only 53 targets for a guy who has proven to be special in space with the ball in his hand.
Defenses are currently able to stack the box to take away the run and force the Steelers to throw. For a team only averaging 87.9 rushing yards/game and a paltry 3.7 yards/carry, involving more swing passes to running backs on the perimeter can be an effective extension of the run game by getting your playmakers like Najee Harris in space, forcing defenses to cover the entirety of the field.
Similar to the effect of having a mobile quarterback, defenses in man coverage can often lose the running back out of the backfield when covering downfield routes. For Harris, getting the ball in the flat puts his athleticism and power at a major advantage against linebackers and cornerbacks on the perimeter.
Failing to involve Harris in the passing game limits what this offense can do. The Matt Canada system works best when the run game and lateral passing attack draw defenses in and open up the intermediate passing game. It also could help alleviate some of the pressure from Kenny Pickett by allowing him to get the ball out quickly in space to his stud playmaker out of the backfield.
For the Steelers to truly reach their potential on offense moving forward, it’s incredibly important to re-include this aspect of their attack. It’s up to Matt Canada to scheme it up, and on Kenny Pickett to not be afraid to just check it down to No. 22 in the flat and let him work his magic.