Najee Harris and the Steelers take on the Browns on Thursday Night Football

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Najee Harris and the Steelers take on the Browns on Thursday Night Football.

Najee Harris and the Steelers take on the Browns on Thursday Night Football.
Image: Getty Images

In two weeks, Steelers halfback Najee Harris has registered just 72 rushing yards on 25 attempts. Meanwhile, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was sacked 13 times for a total loss of 73 yards. Harris was so inefficient (3.47 yards per carry) that he recorded fewer rushing yards than the Bengals lost via sacks. Not a good sign for either team, but while I believe the Bengals and their revamped offensive line will pull through, I’m not sure the same can be said for Najee. Harris.

Thursday night, Harris’ struggles are expected to continue. The Browns are obviously a solid defense with an excellent front seven. They allow just 3.8 yards per carry, the eighth-lowest mark of 2022 so far, while facing Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey and then Breece Hall and Michael Carter of the Jets, in their first two games. These are not children’s games. The New York and Panthers offensive lines certainly are, but the backs themselves are not.

This trend will continue with Harris and the Steelers. Of course, Jadeveon Clowney won’t play tonight, but Clowney’s strengths never lied in his ability to stop the run. In fact, his likely replacement, third-round rookie Alex Wright, was tipped for his height, but never his ability to rush passes. Although Wright has tended to hang his head against the run, it’s likely something the Browns have been working on with him this offseason. That one negative aside, Wright’s forces outside of college have almost exclusively come as an edge-sealing run defender. There may be a drop in Cleveland’s rushing defense, but that shouldn’t be as huge of a problem as Clowney’s absence makes it seem.

Since the start of the season, there is only one starter on the Steelers offensive line — Chukwuma Okorafor – with a stroke block rating above 65, which is not such a high rating. In fact, it’s basically the replacement level. Yet four of the Steelers’ five starters can’t even handle that. It’s not something that’s going to dramatically improve by the end of the season, and for their game against Cleveland tonight, it spell disaster.

Cleveland’s first seven were spectacular against the run in clutch situations. Only 20.5% of opponent rush attempts opted for the first trials. It is the eighth best mark in the league. Considering Pittsburgh’s offensive line currently ranks 23rd yards of adjusted lines (3.88), Harris probably won’t reach the second tier very often. That said, the Steelers offensive line is poor when it comes to stuff rate (percentage of runs where the running back is met by a defender at or before the line of scrimmage), which means Harris could see consistently positive yardage, even if there wouldn’t be much gain. It would be sloppy, but that’s how Harris could make an impact on the field, putting the Steelers in 3rd and short-to-manageable situations. Obviously, he could make a much bigger impact in the air, but after two weeks, Harris only saw eight targets. Additionally, in his two career games against Cleveland, he only saw a total of six targets. Although with the addition of George Pickens to the wide receiver corps and the emergence of Pat Freiermuth as an effective short-range passing option, I find Harris unlikely to get more action in the passing game tonight.

Furthermore, of the 23 running backs never recorded less than four meters per run while carrying the rock at least 300 times at age 25 or under, only seven went on to have more than 1,000 meters on the ground the following season, and only two have done so since the start of the 21st Century (LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis, both 2005). Let’s be clear, it’s still too early to tell, but Najee Harris doesn’t quite seem to be on the level with either of these men I just listed.

Harris is obviously an extremely talented individual, but without a decent offensive line and a quarterback who averages 5.1. yards per pass attempt (last among QBs with at least 30 pass attempts this year), his impact in games via ground attack will be minimal. That said, I know I’ve talked a lot about the Steelers offensive line, but they managed to produce a 1,000 yard rusher in 2021 while recording an adjusted rushing yardage rate of 3.75. They’re doing better than that so far this year, so as long as the Steelers defense can keep that ineffective offense in games, then maybe there’s hope for Harris to get back into shape. That will (probably) not happen this week.

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