Winds of change are coming to Pittsburgh.
If you were to take a look at the stat sheet of Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris for this year, his numbers don’t pop out from the page. Sure, he’s in the top 10 in rushing yards (541) this season, but he’s also tied for second in rushing attempts (150). His yards per attempt (3.6) is the fourth-lowest rate of all backs with at least 100 carries. But the Steelers’ decision to both draft Harris in the first round and utilize him as a workhorse back is emblematic of a changing of the guard. A new era is coming in Pittsburgh.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 39 years old. There’s no denying that retirement has been looming on the horizon for a while now. He’s been slowing down both physically and in his production levels for the past few years. He hasn’t been airing out the ball the way he had in the past, and his intended air yards per attempt have shown that, steadily declining since Pro Football Reference began tracking it in 2018. He isn’t Tom Brady; there was never any thought or indication that he’d be able to continue playing well into his forties at all, let alone at a high level.
Roethlisberger has already outlasted his 2004 draft classmates—Eli Manning and Philip Rivers—in retaining his active player status in the NFL. He likely doesn’t want to be overshadowed by a Brady farewell tour in the near future. It’s possible that this year could be the last we see of Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, especially given his recent contract restructuring and its expiration after this season. As such, recent moves by the Steelers front office—like drafting an Alabama running back in the first round—have more importance to the future of the team rather than an aim to address immediate team needs.
We’re already seeing how Harris is becoming the nucleus of this Pittsburgh offense. He’s at 150 rushing attempts at the season’s halfway point, so he’s on pace to finish with about 320 carries this season. The Steelers’ last lead back, current Arizona Cardinal James Conner, never came close to tallying more than 300 carries in a season. Pittsburgh’s leading rusher before Conner, Le’Veon Bell, only reached the 300-carry mark once: a league-leading 321 rushes in his first-team All-Pro 2017 season.
Head coach Mike Tomlin and the Steelers are having Harris carry a heavy load of the offensive burden already as a rookie, something especially telling given the poor quality of play from the offensive line. Pittsburgh’s use of Harris as a workhorse back shows their faith in his ability and their belief that his production will ramp up heavily once they’re able to build a stronger line up front.
Given that he had 251 carries for 1,466 yards (5.8 Y/A) his senior year at Alabama, that faith isn’t unfounded. Not only that, but his 541 yards this season in spite of the line in front of him are impressive as well, and we’ve seen plenty of displays of Harris’ athleticism already this year.
The Steelers seem to have found the running back that they can use as an anchor of their offense, but what does it mean for their future plans?
Having a guy like Harris in the backfield and a breakout receiving weapon like fellow rookie Pat Freiermuth at tight end are great pieces to an offensive puzzle. Add in the near certainty that the Steelers will use their offseason investing in their offensive line, and they suddenly become a very attractive landing spot for a veteran quarterback. Guys like Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson seem to be ready to move on from their original teams. And though 36-year-old Matt Ryan has only denied rumors he wants out of Atlanta, he’s sure to be considering where he could go to win a ring before he retires.
Regardless of what changes may come under center in Pittsburgh, Harris has shown that he can be the real centerpiece of the Steelers’ offense. If and when he gets a bolstered offensive line in front of him, he could become one of the NFL’s most productive backs.