During their 1-2 start to the season, there have not been many bright spots for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their offensive line stinks and their quarterback, who has been the face of the franchise for 18 years, has gone downhill fast. Pittsburgh’s defense played out of their minds in Week 1; then, injuries ravaged them on that side of the ball, as well as their high-ceiling group of wide receivers. There isn’t much to be happy about, but rookie running back Najee Harris has managed to exceed expectations, especially considering the talent surrounding him.
Najee Harris Being Set Up to Fail in Steelers Offense
Massive Offensive Line Struggles
Through three weeks, the Steelers offensive line has been a big talking point. Four of their five starters are different from last year, two of whom are rookies. While there certainly is potential for the unit, they have failed to showcase any of that potential so far. A group featuring Kevin Dotson (2020 rookie standout), Kendrick Green (rookie with a mean streak) and Trai Turner (five-time Pro Bowl selection) was expected to have a lot of “nasty.” Through three games, they’ve been the punching bags, not the ones doing the punching. Najee Harris is running hard and running well, but he can only accomplish so much when the blocking is poor.
According to ESPN’s analytics, the Steelers as a team are tied for having the third-worst run block win rate in the NFL. Even when in advantageous situations, Pittsburgh’s offensive line are consistently losing their individual matchups. Another stat that supports the claim that Harris hasn’t had good blocking is yards before contact. With just 1.5 yards before contact per carry, Harris ranks fifth-worst in the NFL. Sure, he has not been perfect individually. He has missed some holes and it would be nice to see him break more tackles. But when the blocking is as bad as Pittsburgh’s has been, the running back can only do so much.
No Help From the Quarterback
The other story for Pittsburgh has been the struggles of Ben Roethlisberger. He has regressed majorly since the 2020 season, which is a big statement given the way last season ended. Roethlisberger’s play style is not friendly for a running back trying to succeed. He hates lining up under center, so Harris is often running out of shotgun with no forward momentum when he gets the ball. Further, Roethlisberger doesn’t like using play action, which could work wonders at opening up the Steelers run game and adding an important wrinkle to their offense.
Most importantly, Roethlisberger has been terrible at throwing deep so far this year. Even worse, he simply refuses to utilize the deep middle of the field. His limitations make the Steeler an easy team to defend. Opposing defenses simply need to take away deep passes to the sidelines with two safeties. Then, they know any passes will be underneath, since Roethlisberger won’t throw to the deep middle.
compiled ben's next gen stats passing charts into one graphic for this, and he is just not throwing in the middle part of the field. not one attempt to the deep middle. not one completion more than 20 yards downfield in between the numbers. i've never seen an offense like this. pic.twitter.com/QUpV7pvSIq
— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) September 27, 2021
The remaining nine players can play close to the line of scrimmage, making it hard on the Steelers offensive line to open any holes in the running game. Najee Harris, then, has to break numerous tackles per play if he wants any chance at success. It’s not sustainable and a lot of the Steelers rushing issues actually start with their quarterback.
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