Labriola On

Labriola on Najee, help for Hines, outside-zone

Ready or not, here it comes:

Sometimes, it's just obvious.

Such as the time, in the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XLIX, the one where Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell inexplicably called a pass play on second-and-goal from the Patriots 1-yard line with 26 seconds and a timeout left in a game the Seahawks trailed by 28-24.

Instead of calling a play where the ball ended up being handed to Marshawn Lynch, who to that point in the game had rushed for 102 yards on 24 carries (4.3 average) and scored a touchdown, Bevell opted for a pass to a slanting Ricardo Lockette that ended up intercepted by Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler.

That was when my wife turned to me and asked what seemed completely obvious to everyone except Bevell.

"Why didn't they just give the ball to the guy they call 'Beast Mode?'"

One week ago, the Steelers held their Rookie Minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and while getting to watch some of the on-field portion of the weekend can whet the appetite for training camp and what will be learned and decided there, getting to watch some of the on-field portion of the weekend can lead one to believe things that aren't necessarily true.

The example that forever sticks with me came a couple of weeks after the Steelers had spent a third-round draft pick on Dri Archer. What I saw, or more accurately, what I thought I saw that weekend led me down the path that the Steelers had added a multi-faceted, dynamic weapon to their offense and special teams.

History now tells a much different story. Whether it was the result of wishful thinking or an inability to take into account the total absence of degree of difficulty present at a Rookie Minicamp, the path taken while watching this 2014 version of Rookie Minicamp was decidedly the wrong one.

Najee Harris is no Dri Archer.

It doesn't take a veteran NFL scout to notice immediately that Najee Harris is different than the running backs the Steelers have had on their roster for the past several seasons. Different as in better. Unique in a lot of ways that go beyond bigger, faster, stronger.

For instance, it took Le'Veon Bell a full season and the following offseason to come to the realization that being a successful running back in the NFL wasn't so much about bigger and stronger as much as it was about being highly conditioned. That first offseason, following his rookie year, Bell lost maybe 15 pounds from his college playing weight, and that's when his career took off.

Harris right now looks like Bell did at the start of his second NFL season. Thick but lean. As the only running back on hand during this two-day Rookie Minicamp, Harris took all of the repetitions at the position. And during individual drills, it was Harris and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner working, one-on-one, with no natural breaks created by Faulkner working with one of the other players.

One of the individual drills that held my attention was one where Faulkner was working with Harris on using and perfecting his stiff-arm. It went like this: Faulkner stood holding a medicine ball in front of himself with both hands. Harris would run toward him in a straight line, and at some point just before Harris passed Faulkner, the coach would flip the medicine ball at Harris, who would use one arm to keep it away from hitting his body.

Harris did it naturally. Seemingly effortlessly. And over and over and over again, without taking, or needing, a break.

I know. It was only Rookie Minicamp, and I've been fooled before. But there is something about Najee Harris. Something special about him, about the way he looks, the way he carries himself, and it's as obvious as giving the ball to Beast Mode at the 1-yard line in the final seconds of a Super Bowl.

A HELPING HAND FOR HINES
Recently, we learned that Troy Polamalu had selected Dick LeBeau to present him for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this August, and while that decision came across as appropriate and meaningful, Alan Faneca's decision on his presenter could end up being impactful.

It's the way things work with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, because every year the process teaches us that there's a difference between a player having Hall of Fame credentials and a player who can get elected by the Board of Selectors.

It's an election, and thereby a popularity contest, and just as in politics where candidates seek endorsements from prominent people and often ride those endorsements to victory, Hall of Fame candidates often need a helping hand, either to get their names back into the consciousness of the voters or to capitalize on an endorsement to put them over the top in the voting.

LeBeau was helped in this way when Rod Woodson used a portion of his own acceptance speech to mention him as a worthy candidate. Lynn Swann had John Stallworth present him for induction in 2001, and then Stallworth himself was elected in 2002. Tony Dungy had Donnie Shell present him for induction in 2016, and then Shell was elected in 2020.

These are just some of the recent examples, and it will be interesting to see what kind of boost this might provide for Ward's candidacy, which has found him make the final 25 in every year of his eligibility but never crack the final 15.

IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM, JOIN 'EM
Back in the early-to-mid 2000s when the Steelers regularly aligned in their 3-4 with Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Kimo von Oelhoffen or Brett Keisel along their defensive front, their unit was among the stingiest when it came to allowing rushing yards. To have specific rankings illustrate "stingiest," the Steelers ranked 1, 1, 12, 1, 3, 3, 3, 2, 3, 1 in the NFL, respectively, in run defense during the 10-season period of 2001-2010.

But even that group had problems defending outside-zone running plays.

At the time, the theories offered had to do with the outside-zone forcing the defensive linemen to move laterally – which neutralized their strength, often literally – and created not only blocking angles for the offensive linemen but also lanes for the running back. Instead of having to root out players such as Hampton, Smith, von Oelhoffen, and Keisel to create holes for the running back, the outside-zone got those big, strong linemen moving laterally, which allowed the offensive linemen the physically-easier task of either cutting them off or using their own momentum to wash them toward the sideline to create the holes through which the back could run.

Once before, the Steelers tried to implement the outside-zone scheme for their running game, but it was unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the inability of offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., who lasted just one season in the job.

Well, there could be a return to the zone-running scheme for the Steelers in 2021. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada, offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan, and the significant personnel all seem to be aligned in a way where that system could be successful in Pittsburgh this time around.

As Coach Mike Tomlin said on the Monday before the three-day 2021 NFL Draft, "And let's be clear, the improvements in the running game go beyond just the acquisition of additional players. We're capable of performing better than we have, players aside. Schematics, formations, the things that we do to give ourselves a strategic advantage need to be improved, and that's some of the things that we're working on."

One of the ways to change the outcome is to change the procedure, and that's what the Steelers are planning for their running game.

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