The Pittsburgh Steelers knew that perhaps aside from identifying and acquiring a franchise quarterback if the opportunity arose, priority number one this offseason was to improve the running game. They thought they took a major step in that direction already in the 2021 NFL Draft with the selection of Najee Harris at running back in the first round, but his production thus far this year is a far cry from his Pro Bowl rookie campaign.
While he is averaging 3.3 yards per carry, his rookie college free-agent backup Jaylen Warren is churning out over five yards. Even if in limited work and in some more favorable positions, such as on second-and-long draws, he has fairly consistently produced when in the game. Even head coach Mike Tomlin continues to leave the door open for more and more playing time.
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is also hearing rumblings. It’s one thing to hear things through coach speak, but hopping on 93.7 The Fan yesterday, he told his hosts that he actually did some digging and went to sources to see what is being said privately.
“I started poking around in response to seeing that last night. Warren’s getting more reps and more touches, and I think Mike Tomlin essentially said that yesterday”, he said. “He didn’t come right out and say it, but they’re gonna give the ball to Warren more, which necessarily means they’re gonna give the ball to Najee Harris less, unless they just stop throwing the ball altogether and just run Harris and run Warren”.
The Steelers are running the ball roughly on the same pace as last year, but less of that work is actually going to Harris, who has yet to record a 20-carry game on the season, and very few of more than 15 carries. Part of that is because they have given 165 offensive snaps already to Warren this season, nearly a third.
“Warren has impressed them”, Florio relayed. “He hits the holes and he gains the yards. There’s a little too much dancing going on. And this may just be a way to fire a shot across the bow for Najee Harris, to get him to do what they want him to do. And the fact that they’re 2-6 and they’re trying to win. They’re not gonna tank. They’re never gonna tank in Pittsburgh”.
The idea of giving more playing time to an undrafted rookie over your second-year Pro Bowl first-round running back being a sign of not tanking might have sounded crazy six months ago. But the body of evidence through eight weeks of play is lending credence to the idea that more playing time for Warren over Harris could produce better results.
I think we’ll get a chance to find out. It’s a long road to Warren actually starting a game over Harris, but I think he’ll start seeing a larger percentage of touches out of the backfield (not just work as a third-down and situational back). And if he continues to outperform his pedigreed contemporary, the percentages will continue to skew further in his favor.