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Saunders: Steelers Ground Game Still Grounded Despite Najee Harris’ Talent

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James Conner scored two touchdowns for the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night, bringing his season total to six as Conner continues to be a short-yardage and red-zone workhorse for the Cardinals this season.

The former Steelers running back has just a total of 336 rushing yards on 89 carries, and has played a distant second fiddle to Chase Edmonds between the 20s.

Edmonds is having one of the best seasons of any running back in the NFL, with 427 yards on 75 carries for a 5.8 yards per carry average that is second only to Dallas’ Tony Pollard in the NFL.

Conner’s 3.8 yards per carry, meanwhile, is a pedestrian 34th in the league among backs with at least 50 carries,, making his limited use as a goal-line back understandable.

But what’s somewhat surprising is that Conner’s replacement in Pittsburgh, first-round rookie Najee Harris, hasn’t done much better. Harris is tied with Conner for 34th in the above ranking at 3.8 yards per carry. Only 11 backs have 50 carries or more with a worse average.

Not only is Harris struggling when compared to the NFL as a whole, he’s also not living up to his billing as the top running back in the NFL Draft Class of 2021. Harris is currently behind Chicago Bears sixth-round pick Khalil Herbert (4.8 yards per carry), San Francisco 49ers sixth-round pick Eli Mitchell (4.7 yards per carry) and Denver Broncos second-round pick Javonte Williams (4.6 yards per carry) among rookies with at least 50 carries.

6.0 Tony Pollard, Dallas
5.8 Nick Chubb, Cleveland
5.7 Chase Edmonds, Arizona
5.5 Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis
5.5 James Robinson, Jacksonville
5.2 Kareem Hunt, Cleveland
5.2 Devin Singletary, Buffalo
5.1 Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas
4.9 Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers
4.8 Khalil Herbert, Chicago*
4.8 Miles Sanders, Philadelphia
4.7 Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco*
4.7 Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City
4.6 Javonte Williams, Denver*
4.6 Damien Harris, New England
4.6 Dalvin Cook, Minnesota
4.6 Derrick Henry, Tennessee
4.5 AJ Dillon, Green Bay
4.5 Myles Gaskin, Miami
4.5 David Montgomery, Chicago
4.5 Aaron Jones, Green Bay
4.4 Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay
4.4 Jamaal Williams, Detroit
4.4 Joe Mixon, Cincinnati
4.3 Darrell Henderson Jr., LA Rams
4.3 Chris Carson, Seattle
4.2 Cordarrelle Patterson, Atlanta
4.1 Alex Collins, Seattle
4.0 Antonio Gibson, Washington
3.9 Alexander Mattison, Minnesota
3.9 Christian McCaffrey, Carolina
3.9 Zach Moss, Buffalo
3.8 James Conner, Arizona
3.8 Najee Harris, Pittsburgh*
3.7 Sony Michel, LA Rams
3.7 Chuba Hubbard, Carolina*
3.7 Alvin Kamara, New Orleans
3.6 Saquon Barkley, NY Giants
3.6 Latavius Murray, Baltimore
3.5 Michael Carter, NY Jets*
3.5 Darrel Williams, Kansas City
3.4 Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas
3.4 D’Andre Swift, Detroit
3.2 Mike Davis, Atlanta
3.2 Mark Ingram II, Houston

Now, Harris has shown his value in the passing game, where he is the NFL’s second-most targeted running back. But the Steelers went into the 2021 offseason with a mandate from president Art Rooney II to fix the team’s running game, which finished dead last in the NFL in 2020.

That hasn’t materialized. The Steelers are 28th in yards per game and tied for 27th in yards per carry. That’s not all on Harris, as the offensive line — revamped with third-round pick Kendrick Green, fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. and veteran free agent Trai Turner — hasn’t necessarily made enough holes for him to make a significant impact.

Harris has shown the obvious physical gifts that made him a coveted asset in the 2021 NFL Draft. But so far, the Steelers have not been able to turn those talents into an improved rushing attack and have failed in their offseason quest to meaningfully improve the ground game.

That failure doesn’t necessarily sink the Steelers, though. Running the ball has arguably never been less important in the NFL than it is in 2021. Top rusher Cleveland (5.3 yards per carry) is a middling 4-3 and the second-best ground team, Jacksonville (5.2), is downright bad.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Rams have been just as futile as the Steelers at 3.7 yards per carry and are 6-1 and the upstart Las Vegas Raiders have the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL at 3.5 yards per carry but have started out 5-2.

Ironically, the Steelers’ critical failure in being able to improve their running game this season hasn’t hurt them that badly, because they mis-identified the offseason’s top problem in the first place.

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