The Steelers had another successful day on the ground on Monday, and that is further proof of the lack of value in Najee Harris.
The Steelers picked up a win on Monday, and most of that was due to the success of their running game. Despite an injury to starter Najee Harris that kept him out of over half of the game, the team still ran well. In particular, Benny Snell shined when given a larger workload while Anthony McFarland provided a good complimentary back to his power game.
While everyone should be happy that the Steelers are finally finding success on the ground, Monday’s performance is a further inditement of the value that Harris has to this team. This isn’t even due to Snell statistically outperforming him this week. Harris got hurt relatively early in the game, and it likely hampered him while on the field.
Why are the Steelers running so well?
Ever since the bye week, the Steelers have been a different team in terms of running the ball. Harris had a pair of successful games where he was averaging healthy returns on runs and looked the part of a good running back. He was likely on pace for a third such outing before the injury took him out of the game.
The running game didn’t implode without Harris though. The team was on their third-string running back in Snell yet were still productive on the ground. To me, that is a telling sign of just what value a running back has on an offensive system.
Have we been wrong on Snell?
To clear things up early, this isn’t a push for Snell to get more carries for this team. While he is a perfect third back for a team (a special teams player with limited upside on offense), he isn’t any sort of a special talent. He is a one-note runner that will limit what an offense can do. If he sees a hole he hits it with power, but he doesn’t create anything on his own.
Snell shouldn’t be fighting for starting snaps, and honestly, he shouldn’t be receiving many carries when the backfield is healthy. Both Harris and Jaylen Warren are better options for this team. The fact that he ran for 62 yards and averaged a healthy 5.2 yards per carry isn’t a good sign for Harris as the starter though.
Harris isn’t a game changer
While Harris has looked better since the bye week, frankly put, he couldn’t look much worse. Harris was trying far too hard to make big plays on his own as opposed to finding the hole and hitting it. He came into the second half of the season far more decisive and willing to take what he was given.
For those that still defend him as worthy of a first-round pick though, it is time to admit that he was a mistake. A top pick on a running back is rarely worth it, as backs can be found all over in the draft. A good line can make an average back look great. Meanwhile, a bad line can make a good running back look horrible.
The Steelers offensive line is far from elite, but their play has improved every week. In particular, the run blocking has actually steadily improved, and they are consistently opening holes for the running game. While Harris made some necessary changes, his success past the bye week is more due to the line consistently giving him a hole to work through.
Case in point, Snell comes into the game and produces well. Previously, behind a much worse run-blocking line, Snell looked like an abysmal option that was nothing more than a plodder. Guess what? Snell is still the same back he was before, but when the line opens some space for him, he can serve as a serviceable runner.
If Snell can produce behind that line, so can Harris. Do I think Harris is the better player? Of course, he runs better and is more of an asset at receiver. That said, the drop-off between the two isn’t as big as many believe. Harris isn’t the elite runner the team wanted to get when they drafted him, and he is further proof a team should address the trenches as opposed to spending capital on a running back.
The Steelers don’t need to bench Harris for Snell, but the game on Monday was further proof of what I have been saying since Harris was drafted. Running backs don’t belong in the first round of drafts anymore. Build up your line, find an option on the cheap, and you will still find success on the ground. Unfortunately, the Steelers didn’t follow that plan, and it has kicked them so far.