Harris, running game gives Steelers offense an identity

PITTSBURGH (AP) — When he’s at his best, Najee Harris is a blunt instrument. Powerful. Decisive. Destructive. Capable of imposing his will — usually in the form of a stiff arm — whenever the mood strikes.

The Pittsburgh Steelers running back displayed that in a 19-16 win over Atlanta on Sunday, shoving Falcons safety Richie Grant into the turf with his right arm during a first-quarter run that showed why head coach Mike Tomlin remains committed to Harris after a sluggish start.

While regularly fielding questions about whether Jaylen Warren should get increased playing time, Tomlin has praised the development of the undrafted rookie free agent but hasn't wavered in his support of Harris. Any path the Steelers had toward relevance on offense this season started with Harris, who spent the first two months playing behind a line that was spotty at best while standing next to a pair of quarterbacks finding their way in a new system.

The line is starting to coalesce. Rookie QB Kenny Pickett is starting to figure things out. And Harris is starting to regularly flash the talent that made the Steelers so high on him in the first place.

Pittsburgh (5-7) has won 3 of 4 following a 2-6 start. That Harris is averaging 4.6 yards per carry over that span — a full 1.3 yards better than his average over the Steelers' first eight games — is not a coincidence. While down the road the offense likely will revolve around Pickett, at the moment Pittsburgh's identity is attached to a player whose ability to lead by example became so apparent to his teammates they elected him a co-captain at age 24.

Harris ran for 86 yards against Atlanta despite missing two days of practice with an abdominal injury sustained in a victory over Indianapolis that needed be checked out at a hospital. He hardly looked banged up Sunday, approaching his job with a fury that is a throwback of sorts on a team whose lineage at Harris' position is littered with Pro Bowlers and Hall of Famers.

It's telling of Tomlin's confidence in Harris that the coach held the RB out of practice in an effort to essentially protect Harris from himself and keep him healthy in time to play.

“I just knew that it was going to be this type of (bruising) football game,” Tomlin said.

The kind the Steelers will try to play regularly down the stretch. There's still only a remote chance Pittsburgh makes the playoffs. That the postseason remains even a part of the discussion is a tribute to the mediocrity in the middle of the pack in the AFC, a schedule the rest of the way that isn't exactly overwhelming and the team's identity coming into focus.

Run the ball. A lot if necessary, with Harris leading the way, one stiff arm at a time.

WHAT'S WORKING

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada's game plan between the 20s. The Steelers are averaging 157.8 yards rushing over their last four games, the second highest over any five-game span of head coach Mike Tomlin's 16-year tenure. The ability to hog the ball has allowed Pittsburgh to move into the top 10 in time of possession, meaning the defense is fresher later in games, a serious issue early in the season when the Steelers had trouble moving the ball.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

Canada's game plan in the red zone. Pittsburgh has turned just 49% of its red-zone possessions into touchdowns, which is 26th best in the league. That number needs to tick up considerably if the Steelers want to put together a realistic shot at a playoff push.

STOCK UP

Pittsburgh finally found a successor to Heath Miller at tight end in Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth has become the kind of dependable, no-frills option for Pickett that Miller was for years for Ben Roethlisberger. Nearly 60% of Freiermuth's 50 receptions have gone for first downs, the second-highest conversion percentage on the team.

STOCK DOWN

T.J. Watt is one of the best players in the NFL. He also is not close to 100% healthy. He has just 12 tackles and half a sack in three games since returning from a torn left pectoral. A rib injury appeared to slow him on Sunday. The silver lining: While his production is down, his presence forces teams to compensate, opening things up for his teammates to make plays.

INJURIES

K Chris Boswell is eligible to return from injured reserve this week, though Tomlin did not indicate whether Boswell's groin has healed enough for that to be a possibility. Replacement Matthew Wright has kicked well recently, making all 15 of his kicks (five extra points, 10 field goals) over the last three weeks.

KEY NUMBER

500 — The number of regular-season wins the Steelers have since the 1970 merger, tops in the NFL. Dallas is second at 480.

NEXT STEPS

Try to keep the momentum going next Sunday against AFC North rival Baltimore (8-4). The Ravens could be without QB Lamar Jackson, who left a win over Denver with a knee injury.

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