Ahead of the 2022 NFL season in which the Pittsburgh Steelers are aiming to reduce some of second-year running back Najee Harris’ workload overall, taking him off the field in certain situations, the one main concern now and moving forward with that plan is that there’s seemingly no plan behind the standout running back.
With Harris playing 84% of the snaps in 2021, guys like Benny Snell Jr. and Kalen Ballage simply weren’t needed as much at the position, at least offensively. Now though, with Ballage still on the free agent market and very unlikely to return, the onus to handle an increased workload behind Harris will fall on Snell and third-year running back Anthony McFarland Jr., who has been nothing short of a disappointment since landing with the Steelers as a fourth-round draft pick in 2020.
It’s a bleak picture behind Harris, which makes the decision by the Steelers to lighten his workload a concerning one, even if that decision at face value is absolutely the correct one.
With Harris the main man propping up the room, Pro Football Focus was rather generous in its ranking of the Steelers’ RB room in its latest unit rankings, placing the Steelers’ running backs 18th overall out of the 32 NFL teams.
“The Steelers have leaned heavily on one running back for years, whether that was Le’Veon Bell, DeAngelo Williams or James Conner. Now, it’s Najee Harris,” PFF’s Ben Linsey writes. “The rookie back out of Alabama ranked third at the position in PFF WAR and forced more combined missed tackles as a rusher and receiver (92) than any other player in the NFL in 2021. A lot of that was due to how much volume he saw in Pittsburgh’s offense as the only back in the league to play over 70% of his team’s offensive snaps (83%).
“Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. isn’t an overly exciting group behind him, but they’re probably not going to see much of the field in 2022 barring a Harris injury.”
If there’s one area outside of a third outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith that this team needs to search high and low for, whether that’s via trade or a late summer addition following cutdown days, it’s running back. Snell is perfectly fine as a special teams piece. In fact, he’s really carved out a role there overall. But he’s become mostly a zero as a true running back, which really hinders the Steelers’ well-thought plans to lighten Harris’ workload.
As for McFarland, he’s shown mostly nothing to get excited about overall, and missed a large chunk of time in 2021 with injuries. If he’s able to put it all together in 2022, there’s reason for hope, as his skillset would be a great compliment to Harris as a change-of-pace back in Matt Canada’s system.
According to PFF’s rankings, the Steelers rank last in the AFC North at the position as Cleveland tops the charts at No. 1, while Baltimore sits at No. 10, and Cincinnati comes in at No. 14 overall.