“Just put your foot in the ground and go!” How many times did Mark Schlereth, Fox’s color analyst for the Steelers game against the Saints at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday, make that statement over the course of three hours?
Too many times to count, but I do know Schlereth was talking about Steelers running back Najee Harris and a rushing style that had become too hesitant, too “dancing around a lot” over the first eight games of the 2022 regular season.
Harris, who had a very productive rookie season in 2021, complete with 1,200 rushing yards, had been so ineffective over the first half of his sophomore year that the words “bust” and “Trent Richardson” were growing in frequency when folks talked about his worthiness as a 2021 first-round pick, as well as his immediate future as an NFL running back.
People are going to do that, especially when a player like Harris struggled as much as he did through eight games. Harris came into Sunday’s contest with 361 rushing yards on 108 carries. The only time Harris reached four yards per rush in any game before the bye occurred in a Week 8 loss in Philadelphia when he carried the ball just eight times for 32 yards.
Harris’s low point during his struggles came in that Eagles matchup when he pulled in a quick pass from quarterback Kenny Pickett on third and short. Harris appeared to have more than enough room to pick up a first down, but instead of just putting his foot in the ground and going full-speed at the only Philadelphia defender in the area, he danced around and was tackled before reaching the lead stick.
What the heck happened to Najee Harris? Is he really the next Trent Richardson, a fellow running back and Alabama alum who was picked third overall by the Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft before being traded to the Colts two games into the following season? Richardson only stuck around for two more years after that and never had the kind of season he did in his rookie campaign when he rushed for 950 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
Am I worried about Harris turning into the next Trent Richardson? Not really. Steelers fans, still lamenting the 2021 NFL Draft and the decision to take Harris 24th overall, may be concerned about it, but when aren’t they concerned about something? Furthermore, when aren’t they calling underperforming recent first-round draft picks busts?
I’d rather listen to Schlereth, a former NFL offensive lineman who played on some of the best rushing teams of his era, including stints in Washington, where he won a Super Bowl, and in Denver, where he won two more.
I’d say Schlereth knows a thing or two about what it takes to have a successful ground attack.
“Just put your foot in the ground and go!”
Harris did that on just about every one of his 20 carries on Sunday, a plan that seemed to work, as it led to 99 rushing yards and his best day of the 2022 campaign.
The Steelers' offensive linemen may have struggled to protect the quarterback on Sunday—Pickett was sacked six times by the Saints' stout pass rush—but they were opening plenty of holes on running plays.
Harris was the number one beneficiary. Yes, rookie Jaylen Warren, who had 37 yards on nine carries and added another 40 yards on three receptions, also had an encouraging day and deserves a bigger role in the offense, but Harris needs to be the franchise running back for this struggling Steelers offense.
Harris needs to be someone Pickett can hand the ball to 20-plus times a game, and Pickett needs Harris to be productive during most of those carries.
Pickett attempted 30 passes on Sunday, not bad but probably a few too many for a rookie quarterback.
Pickett wasn’t sharp, but that ground game was. The Steelers rushed for a total of 217 yards vs. the Saints' defense on Sunday. No, the offense won’t be able to replicate that every week, but it has to find a way to effectively run the football on a more consistent basis. No, I’m not advocating for a return to SMASHMOUTH FOOTBALL, I’m just saying that this Steelers offense needs to lean on someone besides its very inexperienced rookie quarterback.
That man needs to be Najee Harris over the final eight games, and he needs to continue to just put his foot in the ground and go!