2022 South Side Questions: Has Tomlin Finally Decided Not To Run The Wheels Off An RB?

Mike Tomlin Najee Harris

The Steelers are at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, informally known as the South Side facility, now into the regular season. It’s where they otherwise train all year round, and the facility that Burt Lauten insists everybody refers to by its full name.

There are still unsettled questions that need answering, even deep into the regular season. They entered the process with questions in the starting lineup, in the scheme, and elsewhere, but new problems always arise that need to be resolved.

Even questions about who’s starting and when may not have satisfactory answers in their finality, as midseason changes are certainly quite possible, for some positions more than others. We’re also feeling out how the new coordinator posts—or posts in new contexts—end up playing out.

There’s never any shortage of questions when it comes to football, and we’ll be discussing them here on a daily basis for the community to “talk amongst yourselves”, as Linda Richman might say on Coffee Talk.

Question: Has Mike Tomlin finally decided not to run the wheels off a running back?

I’m not sure there isn’t a prominent starting running back that the Steelers have ever had in Mike Tomlin’s time as head coach who hasn’t led the league in touches or total snaps played, or at least percentage of snaps played when healthy.

His reputation for preferring a workhorse at running back is well-earned. And it was seemingly one of the chief qualities that the Steelers found themselves attracted to in Alabama’s Najee Harris last year when they drafted him in the first round.

Harris had a league-high 381 touches during his rookie season last year, logging over 1000 offensive snaps including the postseason. He was on the field for 84 percent of the team’s offensive snaps, and that was only as low as that because of in-game injuries. It could have easily been closer to 90 percent.

This year, he’s at 417 snaps through nine games, representing just 67 percent. While he’s coming off a game in which he recorded a season-high in rushing attempts, he is averaging 5.5 fewer touches per game than last year.

And though rookie running back Jaylen Warren certainly deserves credit for making it a more appetizing proposition, it seems less so his discovery and more so Tomlin’s desire to keep Harris healthy that has led to a more equitable distribution of snaps. More than James Conner got, or Rashard Mendenhall, or certainly Le’Veon Bell or Willie Parker.

Has Tomlin finally decided to view the starting running back as a long-term investment based on usage? While the Steelers tried to sign Bell long-term, they also worked him to death in spite of a career of injuries. He had an astonishing 406 touches in his final season in Pittsburgh, logging 90 percent of the team’s snaps.

There is a clear shift in approach between how he is using Harris this year and how he has used every other ‘bell cow’ back in his history as Steelers head coach. But is the root of this shift a philosophical one or something else—such as performance?

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