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Steelers Offense Coming Out of Its Shell



Steelers Najee Harris

ATLANTA — Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris became a workhorse back of his first two seasons in Pittsburgh by being one of the few reliable ways his team could move the ball forward down the field.

But 2023 feels different. Harris got his most extensive work of the preseason on Thursday, scoring a 1-yard touchdown and getting a preseason-high five touches as the Steelers rolled to a 24-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons in their third and final game to prepare for the 2023 regular season.

While the Pittsburgh starting offense has soared this preseason, with five touchdowns in five opportunities led by first-team quarterback Kenny Pickett, Harris hasn’t be needed to be the workhorse. Part of that is by design, as head coach Mike Tomlin said after the Week 2 win over the Buffalo Bills that he’s had a plan in place to limit Harris’ workload this preseason.

But they also just haven’t needed the running game. Pickett has been finding Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens so reliably that they’ve carved up defenses without needing dozens of carries for their big back.

On Thursday, the Steelers showed a glimpse of the all-around offense they hope to become. They threw the ball effectively in big chunks, with Diontae Johnson and George Pickens each hauling in passes for over 30-yard gains. But they also went right back to pounding the rock after their big plays, letting Harris, Jaylen Warren and Anthony McFarland each score a touchdown.

What the Steelers did Thursday, that they were so often unable to do last season, was use success in one area to set up another. The Steelers built an identity at the end of 2022 as a run-heavy team. Defenses are trying to take that away, opening up room for Pickens and Johnson. Their success down the field will flip things the other way, leading to lighter boxes for Harris to run against, and hopefully, making the offense overall much more effective than it was in 2022.

“The last two years … the big play wasn’t there, so we kind of favored the run,” Harris said. “Just finding a way to be not one-dimensional is just really important.”

How important? Just look at Harris’ reaction when asked about being able to run with fewer defenders in the box:

The Steelers’ offensive output this preseason’s been exciting, because it’s been prolific. But the way that they’ve found explosive plays, diversified the offense, and still shown the ability to run the ball — even with three starting guards out with injury — might be the biggest takeaway yet for the offense this preseason.

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