Steelers' offensive line leads way to big games for Najee Harris, Ben Roethlisberger

PITTSBURGH -- Less than an hour removed from his first NFL game with over 100 rushing yards, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris wanted to talk about something else.

Harris wasn’t interested in discussing his individual performance, the one that made him the first Steelers rookie since Franco Harris in 1972 to rack up at least 100 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown in one of his first five games.

Instead, he wanted to celebrate what the five men in front of him did to get him there.

“Man, the 100-yard game,” Harris said after gaining 122 yards in the Steelers’ 27-19 win against the Denver Broncos. "It’s not so much me, I’m more excited of how the O-line did, just because of all the criticism they’ve been taking, and they stuck through it. We never broke.”

With nine sacks and 22 hits of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through the first three weeks -- to go along with the league’s worst run game -- the offensive line was heavily scrutinized and maligned throughout the team’s 1-3 start. But early signs of a turnaround in the loss at Green Bay bloomed into a dominant performance Sunday against the Broncos.

Not only did Harris have his first 100-plus-yard game -- the first by any Steelers running back since James Conner in Week 6 a year ago -- Roethlisberger was sacked just once, and all-Pro edge rusher Von Miller was held to just two tackle assists, thanks in large part to the efforts of right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor.

“It’s all about watching it and seeing everybody prosper,” veteran guard Trai Turner said. “I was able to watch Chuks go out there and battle and do phenomenal with how he did and watching [Kendrick Green] battle. I’m watching Dan [Moore Jr.] on the other side.

“It’s just cool, man. It’s one of those things where you just keep going and keep building. We know this is just one game. We know we have plenty more out there to go get, but it starts with being 1-0.”

The seeds for this performance were planted in Green Bay when the unit helped Harris average 4.1 yards per carry, but they were watered and nurtured in the week of practice between the two games. To do his part, Harris continued his habit of sitting in on offensive line meetings to help the two stay on the same page in the run reads. And, as a group, the line was specifically challenged by the coaching staff and Roethlisberger to be better in the run game and the pass game.

“I thought they answered the challenge,” the quarterback said. “I know Coach [Matt] Canada was very vocal this week. For me, this week was about trying to encourage, talk to each guy and tell them that I believe in them, and I know they can do it. ... We’re going to go as they go.”

The unit paved the way for a balanced offensive attack -- the most balanced it has been all season. Roethlisberger attempted a season-low 25 passes, while the Steelers ran the ball 35 times. By comparison, the Steelers passed the ball 71% of plays against the Packers and 79% of plays against the Cincinnati Bengals.

“We have a great quarterback,” Turner said. “I’m glad that I’m able to play with Ben, but as much as he loves to throw it, as much as we love to watch him sling it, I love to run the ball, too.

“So we can get that going and keep being even, being able to attack via air, being able to attack via the ground. I see some good things happening for us.”

To achieve that balance, the Steelers heavily utilized run-pass options, and more often than not, put the ball in Harris’ hand.

“A very high percentage of those runs today, from the shotgun especially, were RPOs,” Roethlisberger said. “We probably had some of the throws, but why take it out of his hand when you're grinding it and you're getting it? It was fun to watch him excel and take over.”

With the ground game cruising, especially on first and second downs, the passing game opened up. Roethlisberger completed 15 of 25 for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged a season-high 10.1 yards per attempt -- well over his previous high of 7.4 yards against the Las Vegas Raiders.

“The ability to get the running game going opens up the pass game, and I think we saw both sides of that today,” wide receiver Chase Claypool said. “Super excited for the linemen, kind of making that step forward.”

But even with a strong performance like the one on Sunday, Turner is still cautious in his evaluation of his unit.

“It’s a start,” the eight-year veteran said. “I never get too ahead of myself, because we’re always searching for the perfect game. I’m always searching for the perfect game. It’s still out there. We haven’t found it yet. It’s something positive, and it’s something to build upon, of course.

“But now we’ve seen what we can do, so we can’t go back. You’ve got to keep pushing forward, so we’ve got to keep getting better and keep getting better. Because if we don’t come out there and put on this performance again, then what good was it for?”