Conventional wisdom and his track record would tell you Mike Tomlin is a workhorse runner. He wants a “guy.” The Le’Veon Bell types. Big backs who can handle 300+ carries, shoulder the load, and rarely come off the field. But responding to that notion during the latest edition of his The Mike Tomlin Show, Tomlin quipped he’s open to using multiple backs so long as they deserve playing time.
“I’m a two back guy if I’ve got two backs,” Tomlin told host Bob Pompeani.
With the emergence of UDFA rookie Jaylen Warren, the Steelers have used and increased a by-committee approach this season. Signed out of Oklahoma State, Warren impressed in the summer and made the 53-man roster, beating out former draft pick Anthony McFarland. From there, his role has increased each quarter of the season. By Week 5, he became the team’s third down back and over the latter half of the year, he’s seen a heavier presence on first and second down.
In Week 2, Warren played just 28.8% of the offense’s first and second down snaps. In Week 10, that jumped to 37.7%. And in Week 17’s win over Baltimore, Warren reached exactly 40%. His playing time hasn’t been given, it’s been earned. A downhill runner who is solid in all-situations, Warren can run, catch, and block.
His presence has cut into Najee Harris’ playing time but in many ways, that’s helped Harris more. It’s kept him fresher in-game and by the end of season. No longer is the starter being grinded into a pulp and thrown on the pile four years after they arrive. Harris’ early-season foot injury has healed and he’s running like a completely different back, something Matt Canada even admitted, and it’s made him and the ground game all the more effective.
For years, Tomlin preferred to have a lead runner, even if he won’t admit it. It’s the central reason why the team has drafted 220+ pound backs. Rashard Mendenhall, Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and Najee Harris. It’s why even though the analytics show it’s wiser to avoid spending high draft capital on the position, the team has used several first round and Day Two picks on the position throughout Tomlin’s tenure.
No longer is Pittsburgh just talking about being a successful running team. They’re putting that plan into action. The ground game doesn’t produce many big plays, holding back their yards per carry, but they’re far more effective and consistent than they were early in the season.
With Harris and Warren both on rookie deals, they’ll be cheap options and enter 2023 as the team’s clear top two running backs. But there’s at least one more game to be played until then. Tomorrow, Pittsburgh will take on a below-average Browns’ run defense with a depleted front seven, meaning Harris and Warren could end the regular season on very high notes.