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Does Najee Harris really have bad vision as a running back?

There is a narrative that Harris is not seeing and hitting the proper holes in the Steelers running attack, but is it true?

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is underway. The Steelers came up short in the home opener with many putting the blame on the offense who could only muster 14 points. While a large portion of the discussion has been around the quarterback and the offensive coordinator, Steelers running back Najee Harris has faced scrutiny for his vision in seeing and hitting the hole on running plays. But is this really the case? 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:

When it comes to a running back’s vision and ability to hit the hole, it’s going to come down to the film and not the statistics. But to still set up what the numbers ultimately mean, Najee Harris does have his lowest two-game yards per attempt average (only of games in the same season) of his NFL career to start the 2022 season. Granted, he’s only playing his 19th regular season game.

So far in 2022, Najee Harris has 72 rushing yards on 25 attempts for a 2.9 yards per attempt average. Only one time in 2021 did Harris have a lower rushing total in two games than what he has to start this season. In Week 11 against the Chargers followed by Week 12 in Cincinnati, Najee Harris rushed for 39 yards on 12 carries and 23 yards for eight carries respectively. The total of 62 yards on 20 carries is a lower yardage output, but still carries a 3.1 yards per carry average.

Looking back at the start of the 2021 season, Najee Harris only rushed for 11 more yards on one additional rushing attempt in his first two games of last year. Running for 45 yards on 16 attempts against Buffalo and 38 yards on 10 attempts against the Raiders, it’s not that Harris was setting the world on fire right out of the gate. In fact, it wasn’t until Week 5 against the Broncos in his rookie season that Harris rushed for more than 100 yards and had more than 20 attempts as he had 122 yards on 23 carries. But being this is a second NFL season, the hope is for Harris to build on his rookie year and not simply duplicate it.

That’s enough talk about the numbers. Let’s get the answering the question.

The Film Line:

Despite recording his worst two-game stretch statistically of his career, Najee Harris looked a lot better in Week 2 and ran more like the player Steelers fans remember watching last season.

That doesn’t mean it was all good though.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 1st quarter, 15:00.

Najee Harris is the running back.

Look at the middle of the line, it certainly looks like Najee Harris made the wrong decision here. It was bad enough to get tweeted about by former Steelers offensive lineman Trai Essex.

It’s not a good play. But we need to dig a bit more into it to understand what led Harris to head outside here. I want you to go back and note how deep Pat Freiermuth was driven on this play before watching this different angle.

Harris is indeed heading outside at the handoff. His pre-handoff read tells him to head right at Pat Freiermuth, and when Freiermuth gets driven back, Harris heads even wider. I think Harris was planning to run at Freiermuth and Gentry and then cut off of their blocks, and then went wider when Freiermuth was driven back. It wasn’t the best decision to start with, and the bodies in the backfield led to a worse decision.

Najee Harris isn’t a vision-based back. He’s not LeVeon Bell. He’s a different style of back, and he has a play or two like this show up. Things mostly go wrong when bodies are in his backfield and he’s adapting, that’s when his vision seems to hurt him.

Also note that Freiermuth loses to #91, Deatrich Wise Jr. You’ll see him again.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 1st quarter, 0:42.

Najee Harris is the running back.

This is outside zone. We didn’t see that much at all last season, and didn’t see it much in Week 1. The Steelers started running it when they struggled to run the ball in their first few drives. It worked here for a nice 5-yard gain.

The addition of outside zone runs made an immediate difference in the run game, and the inside runs were getting jumped less as the defense had to respect the outside run.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 1st quarter, 0:07.

Najee Harris is the running back.

You can see they can’t just crash the middle of the line here, and it gives a bit more space for the run game to work with.

But what I want you to take away from this play is how Najee Harris attacks the #93 and cuts off of that block and moves the linebacker (#30) by faking going to the left of the defensive tackle.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 12:13.

Najee Harris is the running back.

This is an outside zone play again, and it doesn’t go great. Kevin Dotson (#69) and Mason Cole (#61) can’t keep #98 from moving laterally to the left and Dan Moore Jr. is unable to move #91. Harris is able to cut back and gain 6 yards on this play.

He could have cut vertically earlier, again, he’s not an elite vision back, but he still gets 6 yards on this play, and if the blocks he’s running at do just a bit better he slips between Cole and Moore Jr. and has a great chance for a big run.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 11:29.

Najee Harris is the running back.

Najee Harris ends up in the designed run lane this time, and gains 4 yards, but this play has also gotten thrown around as evidence of Najee Harris’s poor vision, because of that giant gap in the middle of the field. But this is not a bad decision by Najee Harris. That big gap doesn’t matter nearly as much as people think it does. Largely because if you look at the nose tackle (#98) he has leverage on Mason Cole to that side, and the gap isn’t the advantage it appears to be.

Here’s the moment it looks the worst, I drew a line right where the center of the nose tackle’s mass is and drew two lines the exact same length to each side. Check it out.

The reason the right side looks so open is the lack of black shirts. But Najee Harris isn’t running away from his blockers, those guys are there to help him.

Cutting this to the right means Harris has to reverse his momentum, get outside the nose tackle’s reach when he already has leverage to that side, and get past #30 who is ready to run that way to help.

Now check out the scene shortly after Najee goes to his left.

Yeah, he made the right choice. Dotson has the linebacker squared up and the defensive lineman both have blockers between them and Najee.

Najee made the right choice, the problem on the play is Mason Cole can’t stop the nose tackle from squeezing the run lane and Dan Moore Jr. loses his block on #91, Deatrich Wise Jr. Harris still gains 4 yards with quick reactions.

Lastly, notice again how Harris slows up to threaten that cut to the right before going left. Notice how the nose tackle and linebacker react to it and it makes the run lane he ends up in a better one.

That’s how Najee Harris runs. He isn’t an elite vision back who runs to open grass, he runs at his blockers and uses them.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 2nd quarter, 6:42.

Najee Harris is the running back.

Here’s a run play that failed badly. At first glance it is easy to blame Kevin Dotson alone for his whiff on #91 (again), but look at James Daniels and Mason Cole and you can see Cole is trying to move toward Dotson and can’t get away from the nose tackle.

This could be some confusion from the offensive line, or just really bad execution, but I wanted to show this play because on a day where the offensive line was much better, they still weren’t a well-oiled machine. But the steady improvement is heartening.

Steelers vs. Patriots, 3rd quarter, 8:31.

Dan Moore Jr. is the tackle to the right side of the screen.

Deatrich Wise Jr. (#91) had a heck of a game for the New England Patriots, and Dan Moore Jr. had a rough game in run blocking. Instead of ending up one-on-one with a cornerback in the run lane Najee Harris has a defensive end in his face.

The Point:

Najee Harris is not a running back with elite vision and he isn’t a run-to-space type of back. But his vision has gotten an unfair rap this week with a lot of people giving examples of “bad vision” that aren’t that at all. The Steelers run game is starting to look better, Najee was running more like himself in this game and they were able to add a good amount of outside zone runs to the game plan and it resulted in better rushing stats.

The blocking needs to keep improving, and the passing game needs a lot of work, but when we look at the problems the Steelers have on offense, Najee Harris isn’t one of them.