If we hit the rewind button and go back in time to Week 8 of the 2015 season, it’s a lesson that the Pittsburgh Steelers should keep in mind, in regards to their approach on the massive 381-touch workload by Pro Bowl running back Najee Harris. Coming off a season in 2014 in which All-Pro Le’Veon Bell looked like the best back in football, posting 1,361 yards on the ground and 854 through the air, the sky appeared to be the limit for the team, at least offensively. However, in Week 8 of that ’15 season, they learned the harsh truth about life without their All-World tailback, as he suffered a torn ACL in a November loss to the Bengals.
However, then they had a legitimate backup plan in the form of former All-Pro DeAngelo Williams, who showed his full capabilities during the 2008 season where he ran for 1,515 yards and led the league with 18 scores. The two-year deal he signed with Pittsburgh proved to be a saving grace as he more-than-adequately filled in for the injured Bell, running for 907 yards and again, a league-leading 11 touchdowns, while also displaying some of the receiving prowess that Bell had, with 367 yards. Looking back, the team suffered little, if arguably any, drop-off from the elite talents that Bell had during his prime.
Perhaps another lesson the team can learn from the past is with Williams’ usage, as for much of his career, he worked in tandem in the famed “Smash and Dash” backfield with former Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart. During their time together, aside from Williams’ aforementioned 2008 season where he logged 273 carries, the two basically flirted with the 200-carry plateau each season, sometimes going a little over, but for the most part in that 160-180 carry range.
Under Tomlin’s mentality of mainly utilizing one workhorse back, Williams logged exactly 200 carries during that 2015 season, despite not taking on a full-time role until after Bell went down in early November. In the weeks ensuing, he had 27, 17, 26 and 23 carries. Also, keep in-mind that the first two games of that season, Bell was suspended for the infamous marijuana incident with ex-Steelers RB LeGarrette Blount and in those two games, Williams logged 21 and 20 carries. Clearly, due to Williams being utilized in-tandem for most of his career provided him ample wear-and-tear when he was the next man up in Pittsburgh’s RB pecking order. So the question remains, does Pittsburgh have someone of that caliber behind Harris, in the event catastrophe strikes?
The answer as we sit here now is no, they do not. Benny Snell, Jr. has shown flashes at times but has yet to put together anything close to consistency and appears best relegated to nothing more than a change-of-pace guy. The jury seems to still be out on Anthony McFarland Jr. as he’s yet to shed the injury bug that’s followed him. Explosive UDFA Mateo Durant and Jaylen Warren bear watching, but if something were to happen to Harris, nobody should be able to sit here and tell me they’re comfortable with the current running back stable.
There are several viable options on the free agent market. Devontae Booker is one such name, as he capably worked in-tandem with the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley in 2021, running for 593 yards, a healthy 4.1 YPC while also proving to be a capable receiver out of the backfield, hauling in 40 passes for 268 yards. He has the size in a back that Tomlin covets at 5-foot-11 and 219 pounds and would be a great add.
Another option who’s already been a proven workhorse in the league is former Cardinals’ All-Pro David Johnson. At 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, he shares a similar size to the aforementioned Bell and the two also had an eerily similar skillset, as in 2016 Johnson ran for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns while also gaining 879 more yards receiving. The injury bug caught up after his breakout campaign and he was infamously involved in the Cardinals’ “fleecing’ of the Texans for All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. While with Houston, he showed flashes, and in the 2020 season, which again was marred by a concussion as well as the COVID-19 outbreak, he still ran for 691 yards and a very healthy 4.7 YPC. He would seemingly provide another nice insurance policy against a Harris injury, or as the team has been on-record stating, they’d love to lighten his workload and elongate his career.
What do you think? Should the team follow a similar path as the previous one with Williams? Or are you able to sleep at night comfortable with the current RB depth chart? Let me know your thoughts below.