With Ben Roethlisberger's exit, Najee Harris primed to take over Steelers' offensive identity

PITTSBURGH -- In the nearly nine months since Najee Harris was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, Ben Roethlisberger has given the running back a crash course on what it means to be a Steeler -- not just any Steeler, but a Pittsburgh Steelers running back.

Roethlisberger's teaching moments often come between periods on the practice fields at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and on the sideline during games, most often in high-stakes moments of the third and fourth quarters.

In those lessons, Roethlisberger seeks to both educate and encourage the rookie running back, and in one of his earliest, the quarterback also set out a blueprint for the Steelers in the post-Roethlisberger era.

“I told him when he got here, I said, ‘This town loves its defense and loves its running backs,’” Roethlisberger said. “And so he’s got a chance to really embrace this town and this town to really embrace him. I think he loves that challenge.”

With Roethlisberger’s era coming to a close following the regular-season finale in Baltimore (1 p.m. ET, CBS), the Steelers will be in search of a new identity. With Roethlisberger’s heir as the face of the franchise undetermined, Harris has the opportunity to take the mantle as the offense enters the next chapter -- if, of course, the team can piece together a stronger offensive line and scheme a plan that keeps the group from ranking near the bottom of the league's rushing attacks for a fourth year in a row.

Harris' hard-nosed demeanor and never-say-die run attack return the offense to the roots of the Steelers’ organization, while his laidback, genuine personality endears him to all generations of Steelers fans. He already penned his name in the annals of Steelers greats, breaking Franco Harris’ rookie single-season rushing record with 1,172 yards and counting, although regular seasons were 14 games when Harris was a rookie in 1972, as opposed to the current 17-game schedule. Najee Harris also has seven rushing touchdowns and three receiving.

In Harris and T.J. Watt, who will try to set the NFL single-season sack record Sunday and was voted the team MVP, the Steelers have a solid, young duo to build around -- one already a superstar with a strong supporting cast and the other on the cusp of breaking out on a young offense.

“The identity, it’s established on defense,” Harris said. “They know what they’ve gotta do. They’ve got a good bond.

“On the other side, obviously, this might be [Roethlisberger’s] last season, and we’re really young at that. Somebody’s got to step in there, and it can be me. Somebody’s got to step in there and show them what the team is and [show] just how it is to be a Steeler here. I’m willing to be that person, but I also need some guys with me. We’ve got Diontae [Johnson], Chase [Claypool], Pat [Freiermuth], KG [Kendrick Green]. We’ve got a whole young team to back me up. But not only back me up, I’m backing up all of them.”

Monday’s 26-14 win against the Cleveland Browns was about honoring the past in Roethlisberger’s final home game, but to get there, the Steelers had to rely on their future.

Watt had a career-high four sacks, putting him just 1.5 sacks away from breaking Michael Strahan’s 2001 single-season record.

With 188 rushing yards -- including 181 after contact, according to NextGenStats -- and an exclamation point 37-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, Harris helped deliver one last victory to Roethlisberger at Heinz Field. There was some symbolism in that, Roethlisberger said this week.

“Eighteen years ago, a young, first-round quarterback came in and helped an old running back with one of the most important games,” he said, referencing the Steelers’ Super Bowl XL win in Jerome Bettis’ hometown of Detroit. “And now you’re flipping around last week, a young, first-round running back helping an old quarterback win one of the most important games of his career. It’s kind of cool how this football thing comes full circle.”

The regular-season finale in Baltimore is a continuation of that, but with an even greater spotlight on Harris and the future with Johnson on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

But it’s not just about what Harris does on the field that will set a tone for the future of the Steelers’ offense. It’s also in the way he prepares and leads.

Harris is relentless in his practice habits, on the field and in the film room. The first window to Harris’ work ethic came during OTAs when Roethlisberger revealed Harris’ position coaches had to tell the running back to go home during late-night film studies. Harris also practices yoga to get his body used to contorting in odd ways from being tackled. And, he seeks outside guidance from books like The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, a book of strategy for warriors written by the ancient Japanese philosopher and swordsman.

“He’s a great warrior,” Harris said. “He talks about how taking care of the body is important for a warrior. And I think that really is true, just in life. That was one way that helped out a lot.”

For weeks, Harris has been asked about how he feels, mentally and physically. Each time, he laughs and says that he’s fine, that he’s been preparing for the workload and the spotlight that comes with it since he arrived in Pittsburgh. His coaches agree.

“We think he's built for this,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. “... His whole makeup. I think mentally, physically, his knowledge of the game, his desire. He's such a great competitor. I mean, I think his whole – everything that encompasses Najee is built for it, not just his physical body.

“He's so competitive. As you watch him push the pile. As you watch him, make sure he gets the first down. Those last extra inches that are so critical to a drive continuing. He does everything he can possibly do and knows where he has to get to.”

And it’s why Harris has avoided the dreaded rookie wall and has come on even stronger in the second half of the season with at least 90 yards in three of his past four games.

"The future of this organization, I'm really excited to see where we're headed because of how many tools we've got and so many pieces we have." Najee Harris

“He hasn’t slowed down, he’s gotten better,” Roethlisberger said. “It just speaks volumes about the preparation and the work he puts in, and the football player he is. He is going to be a lot of fun to watch here for a long time.”

Harris is an early candidate for captain after Roethlisberger’s departure. He told the Steelers -- and the many other teams who inquired -- he aspired to be a captain during pre-draft evaluations. Despite being young, he’s already been a leader in talking to teammates during games to diffuse high-tension situations.

The Steelers stand to lose so much with Roethlisberger’s impending departure -- identity, leadership, traditions -- but in Harris, the Steelers have the next offensive torchbearer ready to carry the franchise into the next era.

“The future of this organization, I’m really excited to see where we’re headed because of how many tools we’ve got and so many pieces we have,” Harris said. “We can do something great, we’ve just got to get in the film room, spend more time with each other, build a better bond, know each other more. That’s going to be a big challenge for me.”