There was no question that among the Steelers' biggest priorities in the 2021 offseason was upgrading the worst ground game in the NFL a year ago. Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert was aggressive in trying to accomplish that in last week's draft, adding the top running back in this year's class in Alabama's Najee Harris with the 24th overall pick.
There's a problem, though—one that could well derail Pittsburgh's pursuit of a second straight AFC North title. Colbert and the Steelers put the cart before the horse where the run game was concerned, and by prioritizing Harris over adding a high-end offensive line prospect (or two), both the Steelers and their new running back have been set up to fail.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers themselves do not share that sentiment. Colbert told reporters after the first round of the draft that he was over the moon about adding the 6'1", 232-pound bruiser:
"We were very excited that he was there for us. When we went through our scenarios, it was an easy decision by us to say, 'If Najee Harris is available, we will pick him.' He's an exciting player.
"... I can't quite get him a gold jacket yet, but I said that in reference to the popular line of thinking that running backs are devalued because of the offensive schematics that they're going on in our game and at the college level. I've been fortunate to have been around two Hall of Fame runners in Jerome Bettis and Barry Sanders, and I don't think you can ever devalue greatness at the running back position. Is Najee gonna be a great player? We hope so, but we selected Najee because we think he's an NFL player that's gonna help us win."
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin was equally pleased.
"He was a player that we really valued," Tomlin said. "We were ecstatic that he was there, and we took him. We took him pretty quickly with little to no dialogue. We're extremely happy with where we are this evening."
In fairness, Harris is an impressive prospect. Last year at Alabama, he piled up 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground, averaged 5.8 yards per carry and added 43 catches for 425 yards and four scores. He's a do-it-all runner who has drawn comparisons to Matt Forte and Steven Jackson.
In a vacuum, it is hard to find too much fault with the pick. But NFL games aren't played in a vacuum. And the offensive line in front of Harris is a massive question mark.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Steelers had the best pass-blocking line in the league last year in terms of pressure percentage on dropbacks. But the site ranked Pittsburgh 31st in run blocking and in the bottom half of the league overall, and had this eye-opening assessment:
"The only starting offensive lineman with a run-blocking grade north of 60.0 is Alejandro Villanueva at 60.9, and that shows in their rushing success on the year. No team averaged fewer yards per run play (3.6) than the Steelers did this year. It's a group that could use an injection of youth and talent this offseason."
That poor run blocking had as much to do with the Steelers averaging a miserable 84.4 rushing yards per game in 2020 as a lack of talent in the backfield.
And said line may actually be worse this year.
Villanueva is now in Baltimore after signing a two-year, $14 million contract to replace Orlando Brown Jr. as the starting right tackle. Longtime center Maurkice Pouncey retired this offseason after an 11-year career that included nine Pro Bowls. Matt Feiler, who made 13 starts at left guard and allowed two sacks in 848 snaps in 2020, will be blocking for Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers this year.
Pro Bowl guard David DeCastro is still in town, but those are some significant losses. And thanks to one of the worst salary-cap situations in the league, Pittsburgh wasn't able to do much to address those losses in free agency.
The signings Pittsburgh did make don't inspire a ton of confidence. Center B.J. Finney made four starts for the Steelers two years ago, but in 2020 he couldn't crack the lineup for two teams (Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks) who aren't exactly known for their stout lines. Joe Haeg made one disastrous start at left guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year, allowing seven pressures and three QB hits in a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints. Guard Rashaad Coward allowed three sacks in just 333 snaps with the Bears last season.
The Steelers also brought in a pair of O-linemen in the 2021 draft. Third-round pick Kendrick Green has experience playing both guard and center, but Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network viewed the 6'4" 315-pounder as more of a developmental prospect than an immediate contributor. Fourth-round tackle Dan Moore Jr. has length and some potential, but Lance Zierlein of NFL.com projected the 6'6", 311-pounder as a career backup and sixth-round selection.
According to Donnie Druin of All Steelers, the four projected starters alongside DeCastro (Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Finney and Zach Banner) have combined for a total of 38 NFL starts. Okorafor (the presumptive left tackle) accounted for 15 of those last year.
He didn't play especially well, allowing three sacks and committing five penalties.
Now, it's possible that things could have worked out differently had the Minnesota Vikings not taken Virginia Tech tackle Christian Darrisaw one pick before Harris came off the board. But there were other promising prospects available at No. 24, including Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins and Liam Eichenberg of Notre Dame.
When Pittsburgh selected Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth with the 55th overall pick, the list of available offensive linemen included Michigan tackle Jalen Mayfield, Ohio State guard Wyatt Davis and Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey. With a trade up just two spots in Round 2, Pittsburgh could have netted North Dakota State tackle Dillon Radunz, whom some draftniks viewed as a first-round prospect.
The Steelers could ostensibly have spent their first two picks on offensive linemen and still have landed a talented young runner like Ohio State's Trey Sermon or North Carolina's Michael Carter. Those backs may not have Harris' pedigree. But they have potential—and would be running behind (presumably) a significantly better set of blockers.
That's not to say that Pittsburgh's run game won't be better in 2021; this is a situation where there really isn't anywhere to go but up. Or that Harris won't have at least some success as a rookie. But he's going to have to earn those yards. The notion that this line will open up wide running lanes with any regularity is wishful thinking at best and delusion at worst.
This isn't Pittsburgh's only problem.
There's also the matter of a 39-year-old quarterback with the mobility of a ficus in a division that includes a Cleveland Browns team with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, a Bengals team with Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, and a Ravens team that ranked seventh in total defense in 2020.
Ben Roethlisberger looked his age down the stretch last season. With Bud Dupree gone, opponents will focus even more on containing star edge-rusher T.J. Watt. Two of Pittsburgh's top three cornerbacks from 2020 (Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton) are no longer in town.
But the cold, hard truth is that given the improvements the Bengals made up front with the additions of tackle Riley Reiff and rookie Jackson Carman, as well as the hiring of offensive line coach Frank Pollack (along with the return of a healthy Jonah Williams), a compelling case can be made that the Steelers now sport the worst offensive line in the AFC North...if not the entire NFL.
That is most assuredly the team's biggest problem.
Harris is an immensely talented young runner. His hard-nosed style will no doubt be a hit with the Terrible Towel-waving crowd. But in failing to first address the line in front of him, the Steelers have created an uphill battle for both player and team.
Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants are both incredible talents at the running back position. Both young backs have topped 2,000 scrimmage yards in a season.
But saddled with playing behind a porous offensive line, the pair has combined for one playoff game and zero postseason victories.
Harris won't get either in 2021.