Franco Harris made no bones about whom he wanted the Pittsburgh Steelers to select in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Harris, the Steelers' Hall of Fame running back who unexpectedly passed away last December, was hoping that his former team would take a player who shares his last name and former position.
"If he's available, I would like to see another Harris in the backfield," Najee Harris. "We need a running game. I can't tell you how disappointing it was last year, we get to within the 5-yard line going into the end zone and we're throwing all the time. We're not pounding it in there and having running backs do their thing. We need a running back that can really make a difference. This Harris kid is a tough kid. I feel he could really make a difference. Him or Travis Etienne from Clemson.prior to the draft while alluding to
"Right now, we have a lot of needs. There's no doubt that everybody always puts the focus on quarterbacks and offensive tackles. But I would like to see [the Steelers take a] running back, because I feel that a running back can make a huge difference in a game."
Harris' wish came true. Pittsburgh selected the former Alabama standout while making him the Steelers' first running back taken in the first round in 13 years.
In many ways, Pittsburgh's Week 12 win over Cincinnati summed up what Franco hoped Harris would provide the Steelers. Harris and Jaylen Warren controlled the game the way Franco and Rocky Bleier did at times during their years as teammates. The pair combined to run for 148 yards on 28 carries as the Steelers gained over 150 yards on the ground for a fourth consecutive game.
And speaking of not being able to punch it in from the 5-yard-line, that's exactly what Harris did on Sunday on his game-winning score.
It hasn't been easy, but Harris has lived up to the elder Harris' pre-draft hopes. Despite playing behind a rebuilt offensive line, Harris broke Franco's 49-year-old franchise rookie rushing record in 2021 while helping the Steelers make the playoffs during Ben Roethlisberger's final season. Harris was named to the Pro Bowl that year after rushing for 1,200 yards while also catching 74 passes.
Last season, Harris became the first Steelers player to rush for over 1,000 yards during his first two seasons. Harris did so despite more changes to the offensive line, instability at quarterback and defenses largely focused on stopping him.
It's been more of the same things season. Pittsburgh's struggles on offense ultimately led to the Steelers making their first in-season coaching change since 1941. The Steelers' struggles on offense spared no one, including Harris, who admitted frustration following the team's Week 11 loss in Cleveland.
But Harris and Co. responded with gusto Sunday in Cincinnati. With Harris leading the way, the Steelers offense piled up 421 yards in helping lead Pittsburgh to a 16-10 win. Harris' 99 yards on just 15 carries included a punishing run that certainly would have made Franco proud.
Like Franco, Harris showed up Sunday when Pittsburgh perhaps needed it most. The scene was similar to Week 13 of the 1974 season. Following an ugly loss to the Oilers, the Steelers needed a win in New England to secure a division title and, perhaps more importantly, to instill much-needed confidence in what was to that point an underachieving offense. Harris rushed for 136 yards and a score that day, the Steelers won the game and the division and would ultimately win the franchise's first Super Bowl.
Outside of his play, Harris appears to share the mentality that Franco and many of his teammates had. Instead of focusing on personal accolades, Harris seems singularly focused on winning a Super Bowl, which is what the elder Harris did four times during his storied career.
Time will tell if Harris is able to help add to Pittsburgh's Lombardi collection. One thing we already know, though, is that Franco was right in his pre-draft praise of Harris.