Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Najee Harris occupying Troy Polamalu’s old locker; Steelers RB embracing new leadership role

The winds of change have swept through the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ locker room. With Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement this offseason, there are no members of Pittsburgh’s last Super Bowl team currently on the roster. The lockers of those players are now being occupied by a new wave of Steelers who are trying to add to the franchise’s collection of championship hardware. 

The former locker of one of Roethlisberger’s most famous teammates, Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, is currently being occupied by Najee Harris (h/t Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider), who is currently being groomed by Mike Tomlin and defensive captain Cam Heyward as a new team leader. 

“I’m bridging the transitional leadership-relationship between Cam Heyward and Najee,” Tomlin said on The Pivot Podcast. “Najee is a leader. He was a born leader. He’s got good football morals. He sees the game the way we see the game. He wants to be a part of what’s right, so that needs to be cultivated. That needs to be trained. … We’re not going to ask him to lead without teaching him how to do it, what it looks like, what it entails, not only in our words but in our actions.”

Tomlin’s praise quickly got back to Harris, who responded via social media. 

“Got the upmost respect for this dude,” Harris wrote. “Everything he speaks is the truth. I’m still learning every day. I’m more than happy I got these people in my corner.” 

Tomlin shared one example of how Heyward exuded leadership through his actions. Last December, upon learning that Harris had no Christmas decorations set up inside his home, Tomlin enlisted Heyward to take care of the matter. 

“Cam Heyward had a Christmas tree delivered to his house that night,” Tomlin recalled. “Ornaments and all of that stuff. … That’s got nothing to do with football. We just want him to know that we need certain things from him in a football way, and so we’re going to help him with the other aspects of his life because I can’t run the ball, and neither can Cam Heyward.” 

Harris is hoping to have more success this season after rewriting the Steelers’ rookie record books in 2021. Despite playing behind a rebuilt offensive line, Harris still managed to run for a Steelers rookie record 1,200 yards. He also set the Steelers’ rookie record with 1,647 all-purpose yards. For his efforts, Harris earned Pro Bowl honors while helping the Steelers capture a playoff berth during Roethlisberger’s final season.

He may be a modern power back, but Harris plays in an old-school system as far as the running back position is concerned. While many teams have gone to two-back systems, Tomlin remains a fan of the featured back. That’s one of the reasons why the Steelers used a first-round pick to acquire Harris, who helped lead Alabama to a national title his final season in Tuscaloosa. 

Durability is critical for Harris, given how often the Steelers call his number. But despite last year’s heavy workload (Harris had 381 touches last season, 10 more than last year’s rushing champion, Jonathan Taylor), Harris constantly brushed off questions about his physical well-being late in the 2021 season. He responded to those questions by having two of his best performances late in the season; a 93-yard rushing performance against the Chiefs in Week 16 and a 188-yard showing in a Week 17 win over Cleveland. 

Harris will again be an integral part of Pittsburgh’s offense in 2022, but his workload may be lighter this season with the offseason additions of rookie receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III. Harris will also be aided by what should be an improved offensive line after the Steelers picked up interior linemen James Daniels and Mason Cole in free agency. 

“That dude’s a bell cow,” Tomlin said of his 24-year-old running back. “He’s going to have to be a bell cow for us. If this train’s going anywhere in 2022, he’s going to be a major component of it, and he’s capable. I’m not even talking about from a talent standpoint; we know that. I’m talking about he’s capable from an intangible standpoint, bringing the best out in his teammates, wearing the responsibility that comes with leading. He’s just young. It’s been a fun project.” 

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