PITTSBURGH — One day last week during the bye, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris sought out center Mason Cole to see if he wanted to watch film together.
“He asked, and I said sure,” Cole said Thursday.
But it was much more than just watching Sunday’s opponent and trying to find a way to run on Aaron Donald and the Los Angeles Rams. It was a much bigger picture.
Harris wanted to go over the offensive film from the first five games with a fine-tooth comb to find something, anything, to help the stagnant and sometimes nonexistent results coming out of the running game.
Harris said he was quite pleased with what he and Cole gleaned out of an hour’s worth of cut-ups, most notably the run game and its tendencies, and they presented it to offensive coordinator Matt Canada — or at least to their position coaches, who ran it up the flagpole.
“Yeah, he was receptive,” Harris said Wednesday. “It’s going to be in this game plan. The stuff that we talked about, me and Mason, is happening now (during practice this week).”
Najee Harris said during the bye week he and Mason Cole stayed an extra day to look over film and find out what changes need to be made on offense.
He said they took their thoughts to the coaching staff and that those changes are going to be in this game plan against LA. pic.twitter.com/t5cnvxY6Xj
— Emily Giangreco (@EmilyGiangreco) October 18, 2023
Well, maybe it did go down that way. But speaking to the media Thursday, Canada framed it a bit differently. The maligned coordinator seemed to appreciate the impromptu film session and subsequent suggestions from Harris but also dismissed them as more of an every-year thing.
“It wasn’t as much as you might think,” Canada said. “It was more of looking at where we are at, and ‘What do you think?’ and how we are doing it. It was nothing abnormal from what we did a year ago.”
Steelers mailbag: Time to take play calling from Matt Canada? Will the O-line jell soon?
Harris sought out Cole, the first time he has done so with an offensive lineman, earlier in the week in order to have an extra set of eyes on the tape. They watched all of the run plays so far this season to find something that can carry over into Sunday’s game against the Rams and the second half of the season.
“I wanted to bring a lineman in so I could talk to him about what I’m seeing, what is it you guys are seeing, what is it exactly we all can work on to help out the team and our offense and our identity,” Harris said.
“It was good sitting down with Najee and seeing what he is going through and him knowing what we are going through,” Cole said.
Harris followed a very similar process a year ago at the bye, when he met with Canada about the run game.
Cole said he took the findings to offensive line coach Pat Meyer and Harris to running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, and it worked its way up the ladder to Canada. There was no indication that tweaks were presented to Canada in person, but Canada spoke like he was well aware of the suggestions.
“We looked at our runs and what we could do better, whether it is aiming points for the backs or blocking schemes we can do better,” Cole said.
Neither player went into specifics, but Cole said they focused on more than schematics. In addition to running backs’ aiming points, they discussed splits, landmarks and what other teams have liked to do against them so far through five games.
“The coaches did the same thing during the bye week,” Cole said. “It certainly will be implemented.”
The Steelers proved last year that a tweak could provide a spark to the running game. With the team at 2-6 and averaging fewer than 100 yards on the ground per game, they adjusted their running attack and averaged 146 yards over the second half, as they went 7-2 and just missed the playoffs.
Canada has hinted at the subtle change they made last year that led to the major improvement but has declined to go into detail.
“We met last year at the bye and looked at all his runs and see what we could do better,” Canada said. “It was making sure that we are on the same page. It says a lot about (Harris), but that is kind of what we expect and what we have to do to get us where we need to be.”
The Steelers came out of the 2022 bye week with a 217-yard rushing outburst against the Saints, sparking them over the final two months.
“We are going to find out if it works again this year,” Cole said.
The running game has been a major disappointment so far, especially when you take into account how much they hyped it during the offseason
The Steelers came into the season with the mindset of being a physical running team with the addition of Isaac Seumalo at guard, bruising backs like Harris and Jaylen Warren and the drafting of first-round left tackle Broderick Jones and monstrous tight end Darnell Washington.
Kaboly: Steelers leaning toward Dan Moore over Broderick Jones, but at what cost?
It hasn’t quite worked out. The Steelers are averaging 80.4 rushing yards per game, fifth-worst in the NFL, and have games with 41, 55 and 87 rushing yards. Harris is averaging 3.9 yards per carry and has yet to score a touchdown. He ranks 27th in the NFL with 247 rushing yards, worse than two quarterbacks.
Canada noted that he is wide open to talking and taking advice from anybody to get better offensively.
“We have to get better in a lot of different areas, and not just the run game,” Canada said.
(Photo of Najee Harris, 22, and Mason Cole: David Dermer / USA Today)
The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.