5 for Friday: Franco meant so much to Steelers, city

Words cannot describe the impact Franco Harris had on not just what had been a floundering football franchise for so long, but a city that was on the brink of disaster due to the shutdown of the industry that had built the area.

Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception is obviously the play that kick started a dynasty, giving the Steelers their first playoff victory in franchise history.

For the city of Pittsburgh, which was starting to creep into the era when the steel mills that dominated the landscape of southwestern Pennsylvania were beginning to slow down before they began to shut down forever, it was a seminal moment.

The Steelers went from being a lovable loser to the team that ingrained itself within the psyche of a fanbase.

Dan Rooney and Chuck Noll laid the groundwork for what would become Steelers Nation in the late '60s. The selection of Joe Greene in the 1969 NFL Draft was the foundation upon which it was built. But Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception was the cornerstone. It ignited the flame.

Had the Steelers lost that game to the Raiders on Dec. 23, 1972, they likely still would have won a number of Super Bowls in the years that followed. They were that talented.

But that one play energized the fan base in a way few others in sports history could do.

In the 50 years that followed, Franco Harris was a great ambassador not just for the Steelers, but the city itself.

His impact went beyond the football field, as it does with so many Steelers.

Imagine, if you will, being recognized every day of your life for something you did. Now, imagine living in those shoes for 50 years.

That was Franco Harris' life. He relished it. He used that celebrity status for the well being of the community in too many ways to mention in one place.

But think about it. Harris' status was akin to being a rock star and being asked to sing your greatest hit at every concert. There probably wasn't a day that went by over the past 50 years where Harris wasn't asked about the Immaculate Reception.

But he always handled his business with the utmost respect for everyone around him from the first time he was asked about the greatest play in NFL history to the last time he did so.

"I just admire and loved the man," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Harris. "There was so much to be learned from him in terms of how he conducted himself, how he embraced the responsibilities of being Franco. For Steelers Nation, this community, the Penn State followers, he just embraced it all and did it with grace and class and patience and time for people."

Grace, class and patience.

We should all be described as living our lives in such a fashion.

Those attributes by which he lived his life are why the outpouring of sorrow regarding his passing have stretched way beyond the football community.

Franco Harris was a Steelers icon. He was a pillar of the Pittsburgh community. More importantly, Franco Harris was a national treasure.

Football was what gave Franco Harris his platform. What he did beyond football was all up to the man. He chose to try to make the world a better place.

• Harris finished his illustrious career with 12,120 rushing yards and 91 touchdowns.

He rushed for 1,000 yards eight times in his career, including every season from 1974 through 1979.

Realize that Harris also shared carries during that time with Rocky Bleier and, prior to the 1978 season, NFL teams played just 14 games.

Harris had 300 or more carries in just two of his 13 NFL seasons. Imagine if he had gotten more.

He finished his career within 200 yards of the then-NFL rushing leader, Jim Brown. With just a handful more carries per season, he would have been No. 1 at the time of his retirement.

• The Steelers are averaging 144.3 rushing yards per game over their past seven games.

In the seven games prior to that, they averaged 87.9 yards per game.

What changed?

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada went to the offensive line during the Steelers' Week 9 bye and challenged that group.

"Coach Canada made it an emphasis," left tackle Dan Moore said. "He said, 'We've got to run the ball better. We've got to run the ball more. And we're going to do that.' He's stuck to his word. We've tried to uphold our end of the bargain, as well."

The line has played well. And it's gained confidence with each passing game.

All five starters are under contract for the 2023 season, and all five are under the age of 26. It's a nice starting point for next season.

"We want to finish the season out strong," said Moore. "Everybody is under contract for next year. I hope to get this group back for next year and keep things rolling."

• One thing to keep an eye on in Saturday's game against the Raiders is Las Vegas' inability to cover running backs out of the backfield.

The Raiders have allowed 86 receptions – the second-most in the NFL – for a league-high 705 yards and four touchdowns to opposing running backs this season. That's come on just 105 targets, meaning quarterbacks have completed 81.9 percent of their passes to running backs this season when playing Las Vegas.

That means quarterbacks have a 107.3 passer rating when targeting running backs against the Raiders.

Steelers running backs this season have caught 62 passes on 73 targets (84.9 percent completion percentage) for 382 yards and three touchdowns.

The Steelers haven't used the running backs as much in the passing game as they did last season, when Najee Harris caught 74 passes himself, but that's a quarterback thing as much as anything else.

Using the backs out of the backfield this week could be a big factor.

• Since their bye week, the Steelers are averaging 21.8 points per game and they're allowing 18.6 points per game.

The scoring average would qualify for 16th in the league if extrapolated over the length of the season, while the points allowed would be fourth-best in the NFL.

This is what the team had in mind when it entered the season. It just took them a while to get there.

It also didn't help matters that star outside linebacker T.J. Watt was out.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The Steelers have now played seven games with Watt and seven games without this season. They're 5-2 when Watt plays and 2-5 when he does not.

The Steelers allow 18.9 points per game and 305.7 yards per game when Watt plays. They allow 25.3 points per game and 389.9 yards per game when he does not play.

Some are discounting the fact the Steelers have won four of six games since the bye week because of who they have beaten. Would those people feel better if this team had started the season 4-2 and were now 6-8 instead?

The 6-8 record obviously isn't good. But beat the Raiders Saturday, and the Steelers will be 5-2 in their last seven games.

It doesn't matter who you're playing against or have beaten to get there. After all, those same people would be complaining even more if the Steelers were losing these games.

This is the NFL, not college football. A win against any opponent is a big one.

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