Why can't the Steelers run the football?

After an encouraging rookie year, Najee Harris has not been able to distinguish himself often in the season's first half. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- For Najee Harris, the Pittsburgh Steelers offense is like sculpting a statue. It requires patience to chip away, to methodically craft and finetune a work of art.

“You gotta keep crafting and keep working, you know what I mean?” Harris said Tuesday. “Obviously you guys want answers right now, but that's just not how things work around here. Questions don't get answered the next day. Things don't get fixed the next day. It takes time. We understand that and that’s why I try to keep everyone together.”

But through eight weeks, the Steelers offense is closer to a hunk of unpolished marble than it is from a masterpiece. At 2-6 and in last place in the AFC North, time has probably already expired for a meaningful turnaround this season.

The Steelers, though, aren’t a franchise that accepts mediocrity as a ceiling. And Harris, with his Alabama pedigree and well-documented work ethic, isn’t one to stop searching for answers.

On the laundry list of the Steelers’ offensive ails, identifying the solution for their run game should be a major priority at the bye. After three years finishing in the bottom of the league in rushing -- including dead last in 2020 -- the Steelers invested in Harris, a first-round pick and 24th overall pick in the 2021 draft. But the return on their investment hasn’t been immediate. In his rookie year, Harris had a quiet 1,000 yard season behind an offensive line that struggled in pass protection and run blocking.

Even in this season, with a new quarterback and a revamped offensive line, the run game numbers still aren’t where Harris or the Steelers would like. Harris started out with a lisfranc injury that caused him to play with a metal plate in his shoe through the first month of the season.

With the plate out Harris still hasn’t been producing at the consistent level expected. He has just 361 yards on 108 carries, averaging 3.3 yards per carry.

Harris continues to be patient, even as the frustration with himself builds. “Obviously things take time,” he said. “... I'm in my eighth game of my second year. I don't have all the answers yet. Every year you try to get better at something. I'm still learning right now. But me being who I am, I get judged prematurely, which is cool. I'm not sitting here complaining about none of that at all.”

Harris expects scrutiny and outside criticism, and he’s received plenty of it this season for his tendency to move laterally in his runs rather than attacking down hill from the handoff. The reality is, sometimes the thing affecting his running style and hampering his stats is his fiery desire to win, to jumpstart the offense with a big play when it seems listless. It’s a load that running backs coach Eddie Faulker tries to take off Harris’ shoulders.

“Nobody cares more than that dude,” Faulkner said. “When that's the case, you're always continuing to remind him like, ‘Hey man, we just need you to be yourself. We just need you to go do what Najee Harris is capable of doing and cleanse yourself of any other baggage that you're toting.”

Meanwhile, rookie undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren has morphed into the Steelers’ third down back for his versatility and pass blocking ability. He has excelled in his limited opportunities, averaging 5.3 yards per rush in 29 carries. He also has 88 yards on 12 catches, good for 7.3 yards per reception.

Even though Harris has scored more touchdowns than Warren, Warren's averages per carry and per catch are at least two yards more than Harris’.

“Reckless,” Warren said with a laugh, describing his running style. “Sometimes I just put my head down and run. Like not looking at what I'm running into. I’m a downhill runner...I did try doing the east and west (style) back in high school and I got in trouble for it, so I never did it again. So I just run straight.”

Does this mean Warren should get more looks than Harris? Not necessarily. Sometimes different defenses and situations are factors in the discrepancies between their stats.

The Steelers offense has largely been predictable, often favoring runs on first and second downs followed by a pass play on third, making Harris’ job more difficult.

The Steelers have called a designed run on 42% of their first downs, and Harris has been the ball carrier 65 times in that situation, gaining an average of 3.89 yards. Warren has carried the ball 37 times on first down for an average of 2.85 yards. Neither back is getting much room to run, with Harris gaining just 2.14 yards before first contact and Warren gaining 1. After first contact, Harris is averaging 1.75 yards to Warren’s 1.85. Harris has had a big play run of at least 10 yards on 12.3% of first-down those runs -- including an 18 yard carry -- while Warren hasn’t had any.

On the season, Harris has faced a stacked box of eight or more defenders on 21 carries, gaining just 48 yards. Warren, meanwhile, rushed against a stacked box three times for 15 yards. While Warren is averaging five yards per carry in those situations to Harris’ 2.3, it’s still a small sample size.

“I really like Jaylen's development and where he is at,” Faulkner said. “We're late in the game last week and we're driving and he's getting a couple draws and he's got space to run. They're playing two-high, and there's gonna be creases in there. Versus sometimes in the game where it's not as clean or they're playing one-high type defenses or loading the boxes then, Najee’s running into a lot of those things sometimes. So I think you gotta just consider all of it.”

With an open date Sunday, the Steelers offense had a chance Tuesday and Wednesday to work on themselves before heading out for a four-day break.

A painter in his spare time, third-year offensive guard Kevin Dotson agrees with Harris’ statue analogy, and sees things in the Steelers’ offensive evolution that remind him of his own creative process. To Dotson, the Steelers are staring at a partially painted canvas, wondering if they color matched correctly to execute their vision.

“We have the best material,” Dotson said. “We have the A1 paint. We have the best canvas, We have the best brushes, but it's just not looking how we want it.

“When I'm painting and then something just is not coming out, I'll stop painting. Then I'll come back, get in front of the painting and like, oh, this would work better. Why was I thinking so hard? I'm hoping this is the same, that when we get back from this, everybody is rejuvenated. It probably won't be just like starting fresh, but we'll get out of that despair we’re feeling at the bottom.”