PITTSBURGH (AP) — All those games ago, it was a young Ben Roethlisberger who helped a popular Pittsburgh Steelers star go out on top.
Come Sunday, in a game that airs LIVE on News 3 at 1 p.m., a Steelers newcomer hopes to give Roethlisberger another chance in the playoffs.
A first-round draft pick in 2004, Roethlisberger was in charge the following season when veteran running back Jerome Bettis capped his career as a Super Bowl champion with a win over Seattle.
Last Monday night, first-round pick Najee Harris played a key role as the Steelers beat Cleveland during what was likely the 39-year-old Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.
Harris will potentially have a chance to boost Roethlisberger into the playoffs for the 12th time in his 18 seasons on Sunday in the regular-season finale at Baltimore.
“It’s an honor,” the rookie running back said. “Just from somebody like that and the reputation he has. Just him as a player … he’s going to be a future Hall of Famer.”
For starters to make the playoffs, the Steelers (8-7-1) need to win at Baltimore (8-8) and also hope Jacksonville beats Indianapolis.
Harris, the No. 24 overall pick in the 2021 draft from Alabama, was selected as Pittsburgh’s top rookie earlier in the week. He has started all 16 games and has run for 1,172 yards and scored 10 total touchdowns.
Harris leads NFL running backs in touches with 366 and he has yet to fumble.
“It’s amazing because it’s so hard on rookies,” Roethlisberger said. “He hasn’t slowed down, he has gotten better. It just speaks volumes about the preparation, the work he puts in and the football player he is. He’s going to be a lot of fun to watch here for a long time.”
Harris has been strong down the stretch for Pittsburgh with at least 90 yards rushing in three of the last four games. He ran for a career-high 188 yards on 28 carries, including a 37-yard touchdown run that sealed the Steelers’ win last Monday against Cleveland.
His 188 yards rushing were the most for a rookie this season and most by a Steelers rookie in franchise history. A 30-yard run in the third quarter against Cleveland – the longest of his career – moved Harris past Hall of Famer Franco Harris for the franchise record for rookie rushing yards in a season, initially established in 1972.
When Najee Harris arrived in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger gave the rookie running back a quick history lesson of the lineage at his position.
“When he got here, I told him that this town loves its defense and its running backs,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s got a chance to really embrace this town and for this town to embrace him.”
Harris watched the Steelers growing up, so he’s well aware of the ones who came before him. He’s quick to list Hall of Famers like Bettis and Franco Harris, in addition to more recent running backs like Le’Veon Bell and James Conner.
“There’s a long list of great running backs that came through this organization,” Harris said. “I know how important the running back position is. It’s no pressure. If I come in here and keep performing, win or lose, I’m going to give it my best every time I touch the ball.”
Harris is well aware that the Steelers will need an offensive identity after Roethlisberger’s likely retirement after this season – just like Roethlisberger took over after Bettis left. It’s a young group, but Harris is prepared to be the centerpiece moving forward if need be.
“The future of this organization, I’m really excited to see where we’re headed because we have so many young pieces,” Harris said. “We can do something great. I’m willing to be that person, but I need some guys with me. If somebody has to step in there, it can be me.”
NOTES: The Steelers activated leading wide receiver Diontae Johnson from the reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday, one day after he was placed on the list. … LB Buddy Johnson and DE Isaiah Buggs will miss Sunday’s game at Baltimore. Johnson, who was put on injured reserve, didn’t practice this week with a foot injury, while Buggs missed Friday with an illness. OT Dan Moore Jr. is doubtful with an ankle injury.