Sunday’s loss against the Houston Texans may have dashed the hopes of progress that had begun to emerge after the victory against the Raiders, but in all honesty, it was nothing new. Despite a slight improvement in Vegas, the Steelers’ struggles in Houston were nothing that fans shouldn’t have been able to see coming.
It was just the same old problems rearing their ugly heads. Those problems were as obvious as they are well known, and frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding to everything that has already been written about them. But something unexpected did happen Sunday afternoon in Houston that should have fans excited for this team moving forward.
Going into the game, fans already knew that Pickett was struggling with his poise, the defense was struggling with the run game, the other team’s top wide receiver, and giving up big plays, and Matt Canada was struggling with... everything. What happened in Houston was merely the confirmation of everything the fanbase knew... except for one thing.
I’m not talking about Watt and Highsmith failing to get a sack. It was a bit unexpected in the abstract, perhaps, but in context, Stroud was getting rid of the ball so fast it’s not shocking that the pass rush couldn’t get there in time. If you watched closely, Highsmith was regularly beating his man, too, and certainly would’ve gotten a sack if Stroud had been holding onto the ball longer.
Right up there amongst the most obvious characteristics of this team, alongside Pickett’s lack of poise, Canada’s predictability, and the defense’s strengths and weaknesses, is the narrative that Warren is better than Harris and needs more playing time. If there’s one thing everyone already knew about the Steelers going into the Houston game, “Harris isn’t getting it done,” was as likely as anything else to be it. All of a sudden, while everything else was going wrong, Harris popped off for over 5 yards per carry, adding a 32-yard catch and run to boot, after accumulating just 2 receiving yards in the past 3 games combined.
What just happened?
Some of Harris’ breakout performance was the game script. Some of that was better blocking. Some of it was the Texans’ weak defensive line. No matter how you break it down, it highlights one thing; Najee Harris can be very effective if he’s given room to get up to speed, because he’s a nightmare to tackle once he gets going. He’s not just a 230-pound dude, he runs like he’s more than that, and no matter what else you want to say about him and how much you want to focus on and complain about the negatives in his game, you can’t deny he’s a major challenge to tackle once he gets beyond the line of scrimmage.
Harris has had some tough outings recently, and a lot of that has to do with constantly running into backfield penetration. Poor blocking and teams not fearing the pass, have contributed to that backfield penetration, but teams have also been intentional about it. Opposing defenses realize that if you want to stop Harris the place to do it is in the backfield before he gets going. You can’t sit back on your heels and wait to see if Harris comes to you and then try to tackle him. With a back like that, you have to be aggressive, and teams have been. And it’s worked for them.
I’m not trying to make Harris out like he’s an All-Pro; he can be neutralized by an aggressive run defense that gets to him early in the run, and that’s a weakness in his game. At the same time, he also does have some significant strengths, which can yield positive results when he’s able to play to those strengths as we saw last Sunday.
So what does this mean for Harris?
To some extent, of course, all running backs can be good when they have a good offensive line opening holes for them, but with Harris’ power, he can absolutely take over a game if he’s able to consistently get to the second level. Asking him to read zone blocking just delays him and keeps him in the backfield longer. Misdirection plays too often allow easy backfield penetration when a backside defender doesn’t fall for it.
Harris’ best fit is behind a very good to dominant offensive line running a gap scheme that lets him launch himself as fast as possible on a predetermined path, get up speed as quickly as possible, and obliterate whoever is in his way. You could also try counterplays that intentionally cut back to make defenses pay for over-aggressive run fits, as Harris does have solid one-cut quickness at least, and defenses are certainly aggressive in attacking him, but that’s the trickiest the team should try to get.
Of course, the Steelers offensive hasn’t shown the ability yet to consistently open the kind of holes where Harris’ ability can be unleashed. In theory, the Steelers have the personnel to potentially get there this year, but there’s still plenty of growth needed. Whether the offensive line develops or not, though, the fact that remains and was clearly on display against Houston is that Harris is not “Just Another Guy” at running back.
His production may have been pedestrian of late, but that has as much to do with scheme fit and the personnel surrounding him as anything else. Harris is still a beast, who can cause opposing defenses nightmares because of how hard he is to bring down once he gets going. If the Steelers don’t want to waste his talent, they just need to find a way to open lanes for him to let him get going.