Why big receiving games for Steelers' Najee Harris likely won't be the norm

PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after his NFL debut earlier this month, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back Najee Harris got a call from a friend bemoaning his fantasy football output.

Harris hung up on him.

With 45 yards on 16 carries and one catch for four yards in a Week 1 upset of the Bills, Harris wasn’t producing the way his friend expected. But after 142 all-purpose yards against the Cincinnati Bengals in a Week 3 loss, that friend’s complaints are null and void.

But fantasy football points are just that: fantasy. They have no bearing on real-life wins and losses, and despite Harris’ usage -- which included 81 all-purpose yards and a receiving touchdown in a Week 2 loss to the Raiders -- the Steelers are a very real 1-2 entering Sunday’s matchup in Green Bay (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

With wide receiver Diontae Johnson inactive because of a knee injury and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster limited with a ribs injury, Harris was the Steelers’ most used weapon against the Bengals.

His 14 catches tied the NFL record for most catches in a game for a rookie running back, and the 19 targets are the second-highest for a running back since targets were first tracked in 1992.

Harris’ ability as a pass-catcher made him a highly coveted prospect out of Alabama. With the Steelers running the ball by design 33% of the time since 2020 and the downfield options not developing quickly enough for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get off a well-timed, accurate throw, Harris’ involvement in the passing game is a way for the Steelers to keep their first-round investment heavily involved in the game plan while the offensive line develops.

“It’s just another weapon to help spread out the defense a little bit,” wide receiver Chase Claypool said Monday. “If we’re able to get him open, and he’s obviously able to make plays with his feet, that’s a great thing.”

Harris leads all NFL running backs with 27 targets and 20 receptions. He also has more targets and receptions than any Steelers running back through three games in the last 20 seasons. He ran 52 routes -- the most by any NFL running back since Next Gen Stats began tracking it in 2016 -- against the Bengals, a significant increase from running 32 and 24 the two weeks prior.

But coach Mike Tomlin suggested Tuesday the running back’s involvement in the passing game might be an anomaly.

“It might not have anything to do with what's going on downfield,” Tomlin said, explaining Harris’ record targets. “It might have to do with the game circumstances or maybe what goes on up front. Nothing happens in a vacuum on a football field when you’re talking about 11 moving parts in each unit in planning and schematics.

“That was a function of the day. It won't necessarily represent the functions of us moving forward, but it did transpire in that game, and he was a good resource to us, and it was productive. You don't like to utilize it as much as we did.”

Sunday’s plan from the beginning, Roethlisberger said, was to feed Harris. To get him going on the ground and in the passing game with screens.

He caught an early ball from Roethlisberger and took it 12 yards before it was negated by a penalty. He didn’t get another target until the second quarter when he had three catches on four targets for 31 yards.

The ground game, ranked last in the NFL in yards per game and total yardage, never got going. Harris gained seven yards on four carries in the first quarter before a seven-carry, 29-yard second-quarter that included a 20-yard burst.

As the game unfolded, Harris carried the ball three more times and those short passes became less designed plays and more checkdowns after plays downfield didn’t develop.

With 142 all-purpose yards, it became the Najee Harris show not out of choice, but out of necessity.

“The game plan was to win ultimately,” Harris said. “How we did it, I wouldn’t say was just to give me the ball. It just so happened that I caught a lot of checkdowns. That’s really what it was. There wasn’t a design pass for me, just checkdowns.”

While Harris had a 100-yard receiving game, a game plan relying on checkdowns to the running back isn’t going to be a successful one without an offensive line opening up holes to give Harris space to run, and a mid-range-to-deep passing game to keep defenses off balance. Instead, it puts the offense behind the sticks, and without a robust vertical game, the Steelers don’t have a reliable way of digging themselves out of the hole.

“Defenses are just actively taking away the deep ball, throwing safeties over the top,” Claypool said. “So I think that’s why we’re doing underneath throws.”

Another contributing factor to those checkdowns is the offensive line’s inability to give Roethlisberger much time to throw. Since 2020, Roethlisberger has an average of 2.31 seconds to throw -- the fastest in the league. And when he doesn’t get off a quick pass, the results haven’t been good. He’s thrown three touchdowns and eight interceptions when taking at least three seconds to throw since the start of the 2020 season.

The Steelers are poised to get both wide receivers who missed time Sunday back at practice this week, likely lightening the receiving load on Harris. But, Tomlin admitted, having Harris as a pass-catcher is helpful.

“The quality of execution and cohesion in that area of the field just probably didn't lend itself to going down the field as much as we would like,” Tomlin said, explaining his receivers’ struggles against the Bengals. “So some of those passes ended up in the hands of Najee, which is not a bad place for some of those passes to end up.”