When Najee Harris approached the makeshift podium in a corner of the Heinz Field playing surface Saturday, he addressed reporters in French.
Harris was just being his usual gregarious and whimsical self. He isn’t actually fluent in French. What one of the highest-profile Pittsburgh Steelers rookies of recent decades does speak is the universal language of football.
Steelers linebacker Marcus Allen wasn’t speaking French — he was speaking millennial — when he said of Harris, “Najee, he doesn’t duck no bump.”
Translation: Harris doesn’t avoid contact and instead embraces it.
“He’s 240 (pounds), for sure,” Allen said. “He’s strong.”
Strong enough to break the tackle of Steelers All-Pro defensive lineman Cameron Heyward during an early 11-on-11 run-game drill Saturday. But what made Harris the top running back chosen — No. 24 overall — is that he combines that size and strength with a speed and agility that was also shown on that practice run: Harris eluded a pair of defenders who’d gotten in the backfield before Heyward even got his hands on him, and after Harris escaped Heyward, he was fast enough to beat the rest of the defense to the corner, turning about a 3-yard loss into a 5-yard gain.
“Some runs are going to be blocked; some runs not,” Harris said. “This is the NFL. It’s my job to make the most of it. When it is blocked, it’s my job to get the most out of it.”
The Steelers need that from their running back after finishing last in the NFL in rushing yards last season. The offensive line didn’t grade out well last season, and it lost four starters. Plus, neither of its two new projected starting tackles has made it through a single full practice so far during this camp.
In short, Harris better get used to having to break tackles, juke defenders in his backfield and win races against them to open space if he is going to be productive.
“This is the NFL, so not every run is going to be blocked perfectly,” Harris said. “My job is to make the most out of every run. I told (rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth), he kind of didn’t get his block, and I said, ‘Listen, Pat, it’s OK if you don’t get your block. All you have to do is keep playing through the whistle because it’s my job to break the first tackle. So if I break the first tackle, just know that if you miss your guys, think Najee’s going to break the first tackle, so keep working.’
“I think what separates the running backs — the good ones from the amateurs — if a play’s not blocked, what can you create? So I try to create as much as I can when the play is not blocked.”
The Steelers had the NFL’s worst run-blocking last season according to Footballoutsiders.com’s metric. They were second-worst in run-blocking per Pro Football Focus’ subjective grades.
For the Steelers to achieve a balanced offense, in all likelihood they’ll need their running back to create on his own.
“The thing I love about Najee, even in college, was he was able to fight for extra yards, even though his offensive line missed a block or two,” Heyward said. “He made me miss and got 5 yards. I hate it now, but I’ll like it during the season.”
Harris is smart enough to understand that as a rookie — even a high-profile one — he shouldn’t be evaluating his more veteran teammates. He also recognizes that accountability goes a long way in a locker room.
As such, he welcomes the full weight of expectations burdened upon him to singlehandedly save the Steelers’ running game.
“The line is what it is,” he said. “Like I said, my job is to do what I can every run to help out the team. My job is to do everything I can to create better situations so we can create better down and distance for the team.
“I believe in whoever’s in front of me. Right now we’re just breaking bread, getting used to everybody, but it’s my job to create something when nothing’s there. My job is to hit the holes when there’s something there. There’s going to be something there. It’s just my job.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .