Running Back By Committee? Gauging How Much Work RB Jaylen Warren Will See Sunday Against The Saints

On Tuesday, HC Mike Tomlin spoke to the media in his weekly press conference and was asked about the play of UDFA rookie RB Jaylen Warren and if his efforts in limited action would be recognized with more opportunities in the coming weeks. Tomlin responded with the following:

We’ve gotten some awesome contributions from Jaylen [Warren] and it’s reasonable to expect that to continue. I know like I mentioned when we were talking about a division of labor and who’s done what and who’s done what well, I know that was a topic of discussion and very evident in our tape review. 

As mentioned previously in an article published at Steelers Depot breaking down Tomlin’s comments on Warren in comparison to RB Najee Harris and the down year he has had in his sophomore season, it’s fair to wonder if Warren will continue to earn a greater role in the Pittsburgh backfield and cede more snaps and opportunities away from Harris who was elected a team captain prior to the start of the 2022 season.

Tomlin was asked about the possibility of Warren earning more of a featured role in the offense in the same press conference. Normally, Tomlin would shut down any question or comment that he deemed to be outlandish, especially since Harris was the team’s first-round pick just last season and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie by amassing 381 touches for 1,667 total yards and ten TDs. For Tomlin and the team to turn to an undrafted free agent running back out of Oklahoma State over a player of Harris’ pedigree and previous production would be quite the indictment on the state of the Steelers’ running game and Harris overall as a player this season.

However, Tomlin left the door open for such thoughts to take root in the minds of the media and fans alike, stating that Warren’s play up to this point has allowed him to potentially “write that script” for himself regarding a feature back role.

Najee Harris hasn’t been given the best of circumstances this season after he hurt his foot back in training camp and the offensive line hasn’t been doing him many favors in terms of creating running lanes. Still, Warren has looked better than Harris through the team’s first eight games of the season from the eye test. He has run with burst and power, playing with non-nonsense as he hits the hole hard and fast to get north/south and pick up positive yardage. Najee, on the other hand, has been tentative at times as a runner and lacks that burst and explosiveness to rip off chunk plays on the ground or after the catch.

Warren has already siphoned away third down duties from Harris, playing around 30% of the snaps per RB Coach Eddie Faulkner. However, ESPN insider Jeremy Fowler just recently reported that Pittsburgh may look to feature Warren more in the offense to try and spark what has been a stagnant unit for most of the season. Tomlin did mention that the coaching staff did have productive discussions in terms of the division of labor upon further film review during the bye week. Tomlin has said that he will make personnel changes to get better results on offense, and if he is going off the eyeball test, giving Warren more run in the coming weeks would make a lot of sense.

So, how much should we expect Jaylen Warren to play this Sunday against the New Orleans Saints? Well, Warren has played 31%, 23%, and 29% of the offensive snaps in the last three games, so that 30% threshold appears to be likely the floor. However, there is a good chance given the smoke out there among the analysts and from Tomlin’s comments himself that the split could become more of a 60/40 with Harris still starting the game, but Warren getting a full possession or two rather than coming in to give Harris a breather or play his third down role.

We likely won’t see a full-blown 50/50 split down the middle between Warren and Harris as Tomlin has always been traditionally a workhorse back kind of guy. However, times are dire for the Steelers offense which 27th in the league in rushing, and Tomlin has made known that he is open to changes. One change could be consciously getting Jaylen Warren more work on the ground and given his performance thus far this season in comparison to the performance of Najee Harris, the move to feature Warren more in the backfield appears to be a logical one for this offense.

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