There’s an old adage spoken by some respected coach or another, which says that for every rookie that you’re starting, you can expect to lose two games. The Pittsburgh Steelers have four rookies starting on offense, and they’re well on their way to living up to that prophecy.
At the same time, rookies are typically starting because you don’t have better options, and I think that can be said for at least half of the Steelers’ rookie starters: Their top picks, running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth. A case could be made against Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., but availability for this week would pretty much force them into the starting lineup anyway.
Not every team takes the same approach to young players. Head coach Mike Tomlin believes in not putting too much on their plates, though that’s hard to do for linemen. For skill position players, though, you see managing of snaps, and as we get into the second half of the year, we’re seeing that with Harris, for example.
“We’re trying to manage him and we understand the amount of hits he takes”, offensive coordinator Matt Canada said on Thursday, via transcript. “We’ve got four rookies starting on offense. We’re certainly looking at that in practice and everything else, but ultimately, all we have to do is win. That’s how this game works. That’s how it is”.
There is no denying that playing Harris is in the team’s best interests of winning. They’re not going to get quality performances out of the likes of Benny Snell or Kalen Ballage in full-time starting roles behind this offensive line. But yet he has just 28 touches in the past two games, with just 20 carries.
“We’ve got to find that balance. We’re aware of it”, Canada said, regarding managing his workload relative to the other backs while also leaning on him. “Again, I think [running backs coach Eddie Faulkner] does a great job of it. Najee never wants to come out, which is why we all love him. He wants to play every play, do everything. He’s a tremendous competitor and he wants to win. We have to balance that”.
Harris played under 60 percent of the snaps on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, by far a season low. His snaps dipped to just 75 percent the week before, though that was due to suffering a hit to the head late in the game that required him to go through the concussion protocol before he could return. The only other time he went below 80 percent was against Denver, during which he dealt with dehydration-related cramping.
Harris has already played 628 snaps this season. He is on the doorstep of 200 rushing attempts, and just about at 250 total touches—his 248 lead all of the NFL. He has over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and a team-leading seven touchdowns. He’s done all he can. But expect to see them manage his workload a bit more going forward, as they’ve done in recent years with players like Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson.