Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Just give Najee the ball!

Yeah, I know, the Steelers are last – again – in the league in rushing after two weeks, averaging just 57 yards per game.

But two weeks into the 2021 NFL season, no running back has played a higher percentage of his team’s offensive snaps than Steelers rookie Najee Harris.

The team’s first-round draft pick has played all but three of the team’s offensive snaps this season. His 111 total snaps were tied with Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey for the second-most of any NFL running back through two weeks. Only the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, with 114 snaps played, has been on the field more.

Now, the next step is to actually get him the ball.

Despite the high percentage of snaps, the Steelers’ rookie is tied for 17th in the league in overall touches with 32. McCaffrey is second in the league behind Tennessee’s Derrick Henry of the Titans with 59 touches. Henry leads the league with 61, nearly twice as many as Harris.

The Steelers have wanted to weave Harris into their offense slowly – despite his large percentage of snaps on the field – but with the defense and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nicked up heading into this weekend’s game at Heinz Field against the Bengals, it might be time to take the kid gloves off. Run the offense through him.

Harris got 17 touches – 16 rushes and one catch – in the Steelers’ 23-16 win over the Bills in Week 1. But he was utilized less in Week 2, particularly as a runner, getting just 10 carries for 38 yards, though he did produce five catches for 43 yards and a touchdown in the passing game.

“We didn’t win, so we need to do a lot of different things. We thought he improved from (Week) 1 to 2, as far as being comfortable with things,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said when asked if he needs to increase Harris’ workload. “Our job is to get everybody more involved.”

But that has to start with Harris, a 6-2, 230-pound running back who catches the ball well out of the backfield.

The Steelers did do that more last week against the Raiders, as Harris caught all five of his targets to get to 15 touches in the game, leading to 81 yards produced.

The Steelers went into this season with the demand from team president Art Rooney II to run the ball better after finishing dead last in rushing in 2020 – something that led to Canada replacing Randy Fichtner as the team’s offensive coordinator.

Two games into the season, however, little has changed. Perhaps more damning is the fact that only the Jaguars have run it fewer times than the 35 rushing attempts the Steelers have this season.

Winning on first down is the key. And thus far, the Steelers have averaged more yards per play simply handing the ball to Harris on first down than they have throwing it. Harris has averaged 4.9 yards per rushing attempt on first down. When the Steelers have thrown the ball on first down, they have averaged 4.5 yards per play.

Some big runs have helped that. Harris has had runs of 18, 14 and 9 yards on first-down plays, meaning he has gained 23 yards on his other 10 first down carries. But he also has been stopped behind the line of scrimmage on four of those other six first down runs.

Compare that to the 12 of 28 passing plays the Steelers have run on first down this season, and perhaps simply giving the ball to Harris on first down doesn’t seem all that outrageous, despite analytics showing that it’s usually better to throw on early downs than it is to run.

Oh, and it means Roethlisberger could get hit less.

This week’s picks

Bengals (plus 3) at Steelers: Necessity is the mother of invention. With No. 1 receiver Diontae Johnson hobbled, the Steelers might be forced to actually lean on Harris and a bigger offensive package that includes the tight ends and maybe even a fullback. The Bengals are better, but Roethlisberger always plays better when wounded. The Steelers should be able to put good pressure on Joe Burrow, as well. He’s been sacked nine times in Cincinnati’s first two games. Take the Steelers, 24-17.

Bears (plus 7) at Browns: Justin Fields will make his first career start for the Bears, which makes this interesting. Fields’ running ability will give Cleveland fits. He might not do enough to win the game, but Chicago’s defense will keep this close, as well. Take the Bears to cover in a 24-20 loss.

Ravens (minus 8½) at Lions: This one makes me a little nervous, too, since Lamar Jackson didn’t practice much this week after carrying a heavy load again and finally beating the Chiefs. But the Ravens are simply the better team. Can they win by more than a touchdown on the road? Yep. Take the Ravens, 31-14.

Colts (plus 5) at Titans: The Colts are a wounded animal right now and are playing a ridiculously tough stretch. But they likely won’t have starting quarterback Carson Wentz in this game – not that he would have made a difference. Take the Titans, 27-16.

Dolphins (plus 3 ½) at Raiders: The Dolphins shocked the Raiders in Las Vegas last year, but that was with Ryan Fitzpatrick playing quarterback. They will start Jacoby Brissett in this game, and while Brissett isn’t bad, he’ll struggle behind a bad offensive line against the Raiders pass rush. Take the Raiders, 26-20.

Last Week: 2-3 straight up, 1-4 ATS; Overall: 5-7 straight up; 4-6 ATS

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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