The Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach Mike Tomlin love to stay old-school when it comes to the running back room, having a reliable workhorse running back at the top. Najee Harris certainly was that last season as a rookie, touching the football 381 times (307 carries, 74 catches).
Harris finished his rookie season with 1,200 yards on the ground and another 467 yards through the air, combining for 10 scores, but with an improved offense around him thanks to the signings of Mitch Trubisky, Mason Cole, and James Daniels, and the selections of Kenny Pickett, George Pickens, and Calvin Austin III in the draft, there could be an argument for the Steelers to lighten Harris’ load in 2022.
According to a tweet from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo, Harris and the Steelers have discussed lightening his workload, Harris said ahead of mandatory minicamp Tuesday, though those discussions are still ongoing.
“So we are doing that a lot this year. I’m gonna be on the field a lot, but on certain downs I’m not gonna be on the field,” Harris said to reporters Tuesday, according to audio via 93.7 The Fan. “Just take off shots, I guess, extra hits.
“I’m not gonna be on certain plays, but we’re still gonna talk about that cuz I do wanna play a lot,” Harris added. “Of course, I wanna be out there any time I can. But at the same time, it’s all about being smart, you know? So I understand where they’re going from there.”
The fresher Harris can be down the stretch as the Steelers try and compete for a playoff spot, the better off they will be overall. Though he wants to be on the field in eery situation, it would be wise for Pittsburgh to take some off of his plate overall. He hasn’t shown any true signs of breaking down overall, especially after a heavy workload his final season at Alabama and then a heavy workload as a rookie, but after investing heavily in him through the draft, the Steelers should not want to run him straight into the ground before they’re contenders again.
Of course, the only way that doesn’t happen is if the Steelers have a reliable backup behind him that brings something to the table for the black and gold. Currently, the Steelers don’t have anything of the sort. While Benny Snell has experience overall, he provided very little last season behind Harris, leading to Kalen Ballage getting work.
There are still some high hopes for third-year running back Anthony McFarland to be that change-of-pace guy for the Steelers, but after a disappointing second season that saw him struggle with injuries, time is running out. Trey Edmunds is nothing more than a special teams guy, and likely doesn’t make the roster at this point.
Then there are the two undrafted rookie free agents in Mataeo Durant and Jaylen Warren, both of whom are intriguing as backups for Harris moving forward. Both have an uphill climb to make the 53-man roster being UDFAs, but there’s certainly an opportunity there.
We’ll see if the Steelers truly consider lightening Harris’s workload. There’s always plenty of talk in the offseason in recent years of lightening running backs’ workloads, from Le’Veon Bell to James Conner, but once the games actually start, Tomlin likes to lean on the man in the backfield. That’s likely going to be the case once again in 2022.