TNF Week 3: Najee Harris has a lot to prove, and he (probably) won’t
Through two weeks, Steelers’ halfback Najee Harris has recorded just 72 rushing yards on 25 attempts. Meanwhile, Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow has been sacked 13 times for a total loss of 73 yards. Harris has been so inefficient (3.47 yards per carry) that he’s recorded fewer yards on the ground than the Bengals have lost via sacks. That’s not a good sign for either team, but while I believe the Bengals and their remodeled offensive line will figure it out, I’m not so sure the same can be said about Najee Harris.
Thursday night should see Harris’s struggles continue. The Browns are obviously a solid defense with a great front seven. They’re only allowing 3.8 yards per carry, the eighth-lowest mark of 2022 so far, all while facing Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, then Breece Hall and Michael Carter of the Jets, in their first two games. Those aren’t pushovers. New York’s and the Panthers’ offensive lines certainly are, but the backs themselves are not.
That trend will continue with Harris and the Steelers. Sure, Jadeveon Clowney won’t be playing tonight, but Clowney’s strengths have never lied in his ability to stop the run. In fact, his likely replacement, third-round rookie Alex Wright was heralded for his size, but never his pass-rushing capabilities. Although Wright had a tendency to drop his head against the run, that’s likely something that the Browns worked with him on this offseason. Aside from that one negative, Wright’s strengths out of college have almost exclusively come as a run defender sealing off the edge. There may be a drop-off in rush defense from Cleveland, but it shouldn’t be as huge 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 run-blocking grade greater than 65, which isn’t that high a grade. In fact, it’s basically replacement level. Yet four of the Steelers’ five starters can’t even manage that. That’s not something that’s going to drastically improve by the end of the season, and for their matchup against Cleveland tonight, it spells disaster.
The Cleveland front seven has been spectacular against the run in clutch situations. Only 20.5 percent of opponent rushing attempts have gone for first downs. That’s the eighth-best mark in the league. Considering that the Pittsburgh offensive line currently ranks 23rd in adjusted line yards (3.88), Harris probably won’t get into the second level very often. That said, the Steelers’ offensive line is mediocre 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), meaning that Harris could see consistently positive yardage, even if there wouldn’t be much gain. It would be sloppy, but that is how Harris could have an impact on the ground, by putting the Steelers into 3rd-and-short-to-manageable situations. Obviously, he could have a much greater impact through the air, but after two weeks, Harris has only seen eight targets. Plus, in his two career games against Cleveland, he’s only seen 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-yardage passing option, I find it unlikely Harris gets more action in the passing game tonight.
Furthermore, of the 23 running backs ever to record less than four yards a carry while toting the rock at least 300 times at 25 or younger, only seven went on to have over 1,000 yards rushing the following season, and only two have done it since the start of the 21st century (LaDainian Tomlinson and Clinton Portis, both in 2005). Let’s be clear, it’s still too early to tell, but Najee Harris doesn’t quite appear to be on the level of either of those men I just listed.
Harris is obviously an enormously-talented individual, but without a decent run-blocking offensive line and a quarterback that’s averaging 5.1 yards per pass attempt (dead last among QBs with at least 30 pass attempts this year), his impact in games via the ground attack will be minimal. All this said, I know I’ve talked bad about the Steelers’ offensive line a lot, but they were able to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in 2021 while recording an adjusted line yard rate of 3.75. They’re doing better than that so far this year, so as long as the Steelers’ defense can keep that inefficient offense in games, then perhaps there is hope for Harris to return to form. It just (probably) won’t happen this week.