PITTSBURGH (AP) — Bobby Wagner has seen the highlights of what happens when Najee Harris gets in space and there’s a defender within arm’s reach.
And it’s not good. Not if you’re a defender anyway.
“When he reads the holes, when he sees it, he hits it,” the longtime Seattle Seahawks linebacker said of Harris, a rookie running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I think he stiff-armed somebody out of bounds in the Raiders game. Definitely somebody you’ve got to get a body on.”
Unless, of course, Harris gets his body on you first. It’s a collision the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Harris often wins. Las Vegas safety Johnathan Abrams found himself one-on-one in the flat with Harris in Week 2. Abrams’ attempted tackle instead ended with Harris extending his left arm and planting Abrams — an inch shorter and 30 pounds lighter — into the Heinz Field turf.
Abrams and the Raiders enjoyed the last laugh, sending the Steelers to a 26-17 loss. Setbacks against Cincinnati and Green Bay followed. It served as a bit of a shock to Harris, who dropped three games in four years while starring at Alabama. It also reinforced a lesson he learned long ago.
“We don’t want to lose games, but there’s some things that losing can teach you that winning never can,” Harris said Friday. “I look at a loss as a win sometimes because it’s a learning point as a team.”
The lessons are starting to pile up for Harris and a totally revamped offensive line heading into Sunday night’s visit from Wagner and the Seahawks (2-3). The Steelers’ long-languishing running game gained some traction in a win last weekend against Denver. Harris piled up a season-best 122 yards on 23 carries, gashing a defense that came in ranked fifth against the run while showing all the reasons Pittsburgh became so enamored with him during the draft process.
The Steelers (2-3) used the 24th overall pick on the relentlessly joyous Harris, won over by his skillset and his perennially upbeat energy. Pittsburgh’s early struggles were more the result of a totally retooled offensive line that remains very much a work in progress. There were times during the opening month where Harris was the best — and sometimes only — option to move the ball.
That might be changing, but Harris’ performance against the Broncos proved the more he gets the ball, the better it might be for everyone involved in the Steelers offense, Ben Roethlisberger in particular.
The more the 39-year-old Roethlisberger can stuff the ball into Harris’ chest, the fewer opportunities defenses have to batter the 18-year veteran quarterback’s body. Roethlisberger is already dealing with pectoral and hip issues, but he was hit just twice last Sunday when the Steelers ran the ball (35 times) more than they threw it (25).
Part of that ratio was by design. Part of it was by choice. Several times Roethlisberger would line up in the shotgun with Harris at his side on a play that gave Roethlisberger a run/pass option. Roethlisberger would see the kind of coverage he liked only to give it to Harris anyway because he could sense the confidence of both Harris and the line building with each snap.
It’s the kind of growth Roethlisberger knew would come, particularly from Harris. The player who helped Alabama to a pair of national titles admitted before the season opener there might be a bit of a culture shock in the NFL, where the playing field is considerably more level.
“It was probably easy a lot of the time playing for a semi-pro team in college. It’s different,” Roethlisberger said. “So, to have to come to the NFL after having so much success in college and understanding that it’s not always gonna be that easy takes some getting used to, and I think he’s getting that.”
The Steelers will need him to if they want to get back in the race in the AFC North. While Roethlisberger stressed he believes the Seahawks still have a good defense, the numbers say otherwise. Seattle is 31st against both the pass and run and dead last in overall yards allowed.
Wagner allows there’s work to be done for a unit that no longer resembles the “Legion of Boom.” Part of the job Sunday night will be finding a way to keep a back just as dangerous catching passes out of the backfield as he is taking handoffs in check.
Harris leads the Steelers in targets (39) and receptions (28). He could see his role in the passing game increase with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster — a longtime favorite of Roethlisberger’s on third down — out for the season with a right shoulder injury.
“They like to get (Harris) out, he rarely stays in when there’s a pass,” Wagner said. “He’s somebody that can do it all, somebody we have to account for. It’ll be a good challenge for us.”
A challenge the Seahawks will have to meet if they want to pull the upset. The Steelers are intent on making sure the competency they showed against Denver isn’t an anomaly. Expect Harris to be in the middle of it all.
“The first five, six weeks, there’s been a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “But what I’m really excited about is that we’re really molding together to find out what type of team we are.”
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