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Looking at how Najee Harris affected the Steelers entire offense

The Steelers rookie running back set several milestones in 2021.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a number of rookies they called on in 2021. Some stepped up to the plate and came through in a big way, while others showed there is a bit of a learning curve in the NFL. For first-round draft pick Najee Harris, he showed he was ready for the big stage and even earned a Pro Bowl selection his first season. So what aspects of his game did he excel, whether with the ball or creating other things? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers 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:

Despite finishing the season ranked 29th in rushing, rookie Najee Harris did bring improvement to the Steelers running game. Seeing an increase of almost 9 yards per game from 2021 as a Steelers went from 84.4 yards to 93.1 yards, there’s still plenty of room for growth when it comes to the Steelers rushing the ball. But with Harris finishing fifth in the NFL in rushing with exactly 1,200 yards, the problem can no longer be blamed on the running back.

Part of the reason Harris saw decent numbers as a rookie is because he led the NFL in touches with 381. Harris had 307 rushing attempts with 74 receptions, which was the most this season by a running back. In fact, the only member of the Pittsburgh Steelers to ever have more receptions in a season as a running back was Le’Veon Bell who did it in 2014, 2016, and 2017. Of course, Harris had 17 games this year in order to get his 381 touches. It should also be noted that Harrison is tied with the seventh-most touches in a season over the last 10 years in the NFL.

One of Harris’ best ability in 2021 with his availability. Harris was one of only three running backs in the NFL this season to start all 17 games along with Jonathan Taylor and Ezekiel Elliott. While there were a number of running backs who appeared in all 17 games, the only other player who’s started more than 10 games yet appeared in every game was Devin Singletary with 16 starts on the season.

Najee Harris can definitely improve, from a statistical standpoint, on his yards per attempt of 3.91 which had him ranked tied for 66th among players that had at least 50 carries this season. While this number could look much better, it is difficult for Harris to do it alone as some unofficial statistical outlets had Harris leading the way in the NFL with the most rushing attempts where he was hit behind the line of scrimmage

So there is some of the numbers behind Najee Harris’ rookie year. But what does the eye test tell us? What else did Harris do that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

Dave did a great job covering Najee Harris’s production, but Harris looks even better on film, where his vision, acceleration and determination to gain extra yards shows up on almost every play.

Let’s start with that, and we’ll move on to where I think his value extends beyond his stats.

Steelers v Bills, 3rd quarter, 15:00.

Najee Harris is the running back.

From Week 1, Najee Harris came in and showed his value. He showed the decisiveness, burst through the hole, and how hard he runs right off the bat. He was exactly what the Steelers needed. That run above may look easy, there’s a hole, and Najee Harris runs through it. But what makes that run look easy is his vision to find the hole quickly, his decisiveness to burst into and through that hole before the defense can close it, and after that he shows the effort he put into each one of his 381 touches.

Steelers v Bengals, 3rd quarter, 05:12.

Najee Harris is the running back.

When Harris got past the line, in the few cases where the line cleared a path for him, or on passes like this, Harris showed he was an absolute monster for defensive backs to bring down. It’s easy to see plays like that and imagine what Harris would do with a really good offensive line.

But even without a good offensive line, Harris drew so much attention that he made life easier on everyone else.

Steelers v Raiders, 2nd quarter, 9:34.

Najee Harris is the running back.

Look at how hard the defense commits to stopping the run. This is what defenses were doing to slow down Najee Harris when his line wasn’t good. Not only do the Raiders give the Steelers a 1v1 on Diontae Johnson, but look at Chase Claypool coming across the field, he’s open as well. The defense focusing on Najee Harris opened up a lot of options for the Steelers offense that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.

Steelers v Browns, 3rd quarter, 3:39.

Najee Harris is the player farthest behind the line in the hypocycloid to the bottom of the screen.

This is one of my favorite plays of the entire season. Ben has three reads here. If the Bengals failed to adjust to the motion that put Najee out wide in the Hypocycloid that’s an easy decision. But look— every Brown from Myles Garrett(#95) on is all in on defending Najee Harris, and the line backer is cheating to that side pretty hard as well.

With six players focusing on the 4 players to the bottom, Roethlisberger’s only post-snap concern is the safety, who gives away before the snap that he’s worried about Chase Claypool running a slant. Claypool is running a slant, a route that Claypool is really hard to stop 1v1.

A quick fake to that slant and Ben Roethlisberger takes off, with 4 offensive lineman needing to block four defenders. One of those defenders is the linebacker who is out of position, so it is easy for the combo block to reach him and Roethlisberger converts a 2 point attempt with his legs at 39 years old.

The play design is great, the execution from Ben Roethlisberger is really good too, but the star of this show is the amount of attention Najee Harris drew from defenses throughout the 2021 season.

Steelers v Bears, 1st quarter, 10:19.

Najee Harris is the running back, James Washington is the receiver in motion.

When the Steelers offensive line was starting to play well from Week 6 to the first part of the Week 10 matchup with Detroit, Najee Harris drew even more attention, and Matt Canada’s offense was at its best.

Look at how drastically the defense is focused on Najee Harris here. I know I’m showing more non-Najee plays than actual runs by Harris, but we all can remember 100 plays where Harris evaded/ran through 4 defenders to gain 2 yards, and how great the run game looked when he got a crack to run through. In my opinion, the best way to show how good Najee Harris was, and the impact he had on the game is the amount of focus other teams knew they had to give him to stop him. These clips also show how Najee Harris was driving the success of the offense even when his gains were small. And when teams weren’t able to shut Najee Harris down?

Steelers v Browns, 3rd quarter, 12:38.

Najee Harris is the running back.

This is the run that broke Franco Harris’ Steelers rookie record for rushing yards. The Browns have the edge sealed, and two defenders with only Chase Claypool blocking as Harris approaches the run lane. That isn’t enough. Really. Chase Claypool’s block fails as Harris cuts outside, but that’s okay, Harris beats both defenders and then delivers an exclamation point at the end of the run to break the record in style.

Teams didn’t overcommit to Najee Harris in those previous clips, they committed the amount of bodies they had to commit, because giving up 30-yard runs makes it really hard to win football games, as we all saw with the Steelers defense this season.

Steelers v Browns, 4th quarter, 1:00.

Najee Harris is the super hero posing as a running back.

The best run of his rookie season. The Browns have pulled within 5 points of the Steelers, they just need to get the ball back and score a touchdown to ruin Ben Roethlisberger’s last game at Heinz Field and wreck the mood in what ended up an incredible send-off for Roethlisberger and also give obnoxious Browns fans something to cling to and bring up for the rest of their lives.

So, of course, on 3rd and 2 the Browns bring literally everyone to the line of scrimmage, and it still wasn’t enough. Two defenders got hands on him before he crossed the first down line, but that doesn’t matter, Harris breaks through and outruns the field for a touchdown to seal the win.

The Point:

With the Steelers potentially in the market for a young quarterback, look at these plays, look at what Najee Harris brings to the Steelers offense, and what he does to defenses. Invest in the offensive line, give Harris a real chance to dominate and watch him do for whoever the Steelers next QB what Nick Chubb and the Browns offensive line did for Baker Mayfield.