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Jerome Bettis Defends Najee Harris Over Unfair Criticism

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Steelers running back Najee Harris

Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis thinks the criticism of Najee Harris has been unfair and there’s a chance the Steelers could regret not picking up his fifth-year option.

“You look at the offensive line. His first year, the offensive line was awful. His second year, they were bad. And in his last year, they were a little, maybe average, a touch below average,” Bettis said during an appearance on the Zach Gelb Show.

“So he’s been running behind a group that hasn’t been playing up to their potential. They’ve kind of made a resurgence. They’ve got some draft picks. They put some thought into the offensive line, and now I believe he’ll be running behind the best offensive line he will have had all of years in Pittsburgh.”

Najee Harris Steelers Running Back.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris during a game against the Baltimore Ravens on Jan. 6, 2023. Steelers Now / Ed Thompson

Bettis is right that the Steelers’ offensive line was terrible in 2021. It wasn’t all that great in 2022, either. Last season the unit really started to gel, and now with the additions of rookies Troy Fautanu, Zach Frazier and Mason McCormick, the offensive line should be set for years to come.

The Steelers have invested five draft picks on the offensive line over the last two drafts, two of them first-rounders in tackles Broderick Jones and Fautanu. They also signed veteran guard Isaac Semualo in free agency in March of 2023.

This will be by far Harris’ best offensive line that he’s ran behind since joining the Steelers.

“That’s showing you that the offensive line is not where it needs to be. They’ve made it a point of emphasis, which means as a running back, you’re going to be much better,” Bettis said earlier this month during an appearance on The Joe Starkey Show on 93.7 The Fan.

Bettis was surprised that the Steelers didn’t place the fifth-year option on Harris, but he understands the business part of it.

“I was surprised, but here’s why I am not surprised,” Bettis told Starkey. “I’m not surprised because there’s, I believe, a conscious effort the NFL has taken on running backs…to keep the numbers for running backs under wraps so that they can have the money to go give quarterbacks, and give to wide receivers, and give to tight ends.”

Harris became the first player in Steelers history to run for 1,000 or more yards in each of the first three seasons of his career. In 2023, Harris had the best season of his career in terms of yards per carry as he rushed 255 times for 1,035 yards — a 4.1 yards per carry average — and he scored eight touchdowns. Harris had rushed for 3.9 and 3.8 yards per carry in his first two seasons. In other words, Harris has become a dependable running back for Pittsburgh through sheer availability and some solid tape.