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Canada feels Harris ready to turn things around

While much of the emphasis for the Steelers' offense this season has been on the transition from future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to rookie Kenny Pickett, somewhat lost in the wash at times has been the team's overall lack of a consistent rushing attack.

The Steelers are averaging 94.9 yards rushing per game this season, up slightly from the 93.1 that they averaged in 2021.

But once quarterback rushing yards are factored into the equation, it becomes obvious the Steelers aren't running the ball effectively in a traditional sense.

Fixing that in the second half of this season, starting with Sunday's game at Acrisure Stadium against the Saints (3-6) has to be a point of emphasis for the Steelers (2-6).

Between Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph last season, the Steelers got a combined 58 rushing yards, with just five of that coming from Roethlisberger in his 16 games.

But between Pickett and Mitch Trubisky this season, the Steelers have gotten 127 yards on the ground in their first eight games.

The issue is that Najee Harris, who gained 1,200 yards on the ground in 2021, has just 361 yards rushing this season.

Getting Harris rolling in the second half of the year is a must, not only to take some of the pressure off Pickett, but to bolster the confidence of the team's 2021 first-round draft pick.

The lack of success at the same level as a year ago has caused some to wonder if backup Jaylen Warren might get more touches moving forward. Whether that happens or not largely depends on Harris, a workhorse who also caught 74 passes for 467 yards as a rookie.

"I think when we're sitting here at 2-6, we're all searching and hunting for why that is," offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Thursday at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex. "If you're a competitor, which Najee is, if you're a winner, which Najee is, you're a guy who wants to do all he can to help the team win, which he is, you're going to ultimately look at yourself and say, 'What can I do better?' 

"I think that's what Najee is doing. Najee's just got to go out and play football. And he will. He's a tremendous talent. Nobody's numbers are what (they would like to be). Nobody's happy with where we are. But we're going to continue to keep going. He'll start trending in the right direction, as well."

Harris dealt with a sprained Lisfranc in training camp, but made it back by the start of the regular season. He played much of the first half of this season with a steel plate in his shoe to help guard against reinjuring the foot. But the results haven't necessarily changed.

Part of that is because the Steelers have trailed in many of their games. He's averaging just 13.5 carries per game in the first half of this season, down from 18.1 last season.

But Warren also has worked his way into the mix as a third-down back, and given that he's averaged 5.3 yards per carry and 7.3 yards per reception, that's not changing anytime soon.

"We've gotten some awesome contributions from Jaylen, and it's reasonable to expect that to continue," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week.

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

Canada knows there's a balance that must be struck there between the punishing 240-pound Harris and the 215-pound Warren, who has understandably shown to be much quicker and explosive.

"He's been on the field on third downs because he's does such a good job in that role," Canada said of Warren. "Some of that (explosiveness) happens because of that. But I don't want to minimize what he's done talent-wise or execution-wise. The guy goes in and plays hard, makes things happen. He's done a great job."

But the Steelers also know that if they're going to win more games in the second half of this season, they have to get Harris churning out yards again.

He averaged 78.4 yards rushing per game in the team's nine victories last season. In seven losses, that fell to 55.6 yards rushing per game.

This year, he's averaging 45.1 yards per game as a whole. In addition to being behind so much, some of his lack of production can be attributed to being slowed early by the foot injury.

In the past two games, he's been more effective, averaging 3.9 yards per carry, an uptick from the 3.2 yards per attempt he averaged in the team's first seven games.

Canada believes Harris is now healthy and just has to envision himself being effective. He can't begin questioning his talent.

"You've got to see yourself doing things for them to happen. Your mind is a really powerful thing," Canada said. "I think Najee is in a good spot. He's healthy. He's practicing, feeling good. We'll be good. Everything is 11 men doing their job, blocking, blocking on the edge. Everybody's got to do their job. It's not just Najee. But Najee can improve. He sees that. He's going to work to do what he can do. That's all he can do."