The city of Pittsburgh has grown accustomed to the playing style of its professional football team. For decades, the Steelers maintained their reputation, built on physicality. They are known as one of the most aggressive franchises in the league. Defenders yearn to inflict as much pain as possible, while a consistent dose of ground-and-pound football keeps the offense in control of the play clock.
An all-around onslaught fragments the minds of opponents. Teams struggle to capture momentum - resulting in costly mistakes. This recipe has led Pittsburgh to six Superbowl victories. They've relied on skilled rushers, efficient quarterbacks, and stifling defensive performances to become a successful franchise. As we enter a new season, can we expect Najee Harris to lead Pittsburgh's offense?
Najee Harris had an explosive rookie season
We haven't seen the production many expected from Pittsburgh's former first-round pick. His outstanding collegiate career led fans to believe his success would transition to the professional stage. He was an unstoppable force with the Crimson Tide. An abundance of strength and speed was too much for opposing defenders. Harris accumulated 3,843 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns before joining the Steelers backfield. He orchestrated Nick Saban's offense from the backfield - causing frustration to opposing teams.
It didn’t take long for Matt Canada to insert his rookie tailback into the offense. Harris was up for the challenge and welcomed it with open arms. He became a vital part of Pittsburgh's run-first offense. At the end of his rookie campaign, Harris ranked second in rushing attempts (307) and snaps played (353). His 1,200 yards led all rookies in his class and ranked fourth among active rushers.
Offensive struggles overshadowed their rookie's explosive season. Matt Canada's unit failed to put points on the board. In 2021, the Steelers ranked 19th in points scored. They finished the season ranked 24th in rushing offense (71.5) and 30th in passing offense (54.3). An unproductive collective effort on offense didn’t hinder Pittsburgh from making a playoff appearance. They lost 48-37 in the wild-card round to Cleveland and were forced to begin preparing for the 2022 season.
Offensive improvements will help Pittsburgh develop a running game
Mike Tomlin's roster has received several improvements since their 2021 campaign. They've dedicated time and resources toward filling holes on offense. Kenny Pickett (20th) George Pickens (52nd), Calvin Austin III (138th), and Connor Heyward (208th) were selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. Their selections were timely and gave the Steelers a chance to build around younger talent. Pickens and Pickett eventually developed a connection. They torched opposing defenses throughout the season - giving Pittsburgh's offense much-needed signs of life.
Pittsburgh's offense improved thanks to the addition of determined role players. Pickens, Pickett, and Heyward worked diligently to become involved. Their production alleviated additional pressures from Najee Harris. It allowed him to rest more frequently - resulting in an efficient year. Harris earned a higher offensive (73.5) and rushing rating (75.2) in his sophomore season. The Steelers' offensive rating also improved from 28th (65.2) to 16th (74.5) in a single season.
Najee Harris had an exceptional rookie season. He was considered the best player on Matt Canada's depth chart, which led to an insane rookie workload. Relying on Harris to make big plays hindered the progression of the offense. They became one-dimensional, making it easier for defenses to predict their game plan.
New additions to the roster should help Najee Harris experience similar results to his rookie campaign. In 2022, Harris reached the 1,000-yard rushing benchmark (1,038) and increased his yards-per-carry average. A balanced offensive scheme will allow the Steelers to implement their ground-and-pound offense. It’s the language of the franchise and will be successful this upcoming season.