PITTSBURGH — Jaylen Warren might be the savior that Najee Harris needed but never knew he wanted.
The undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State is impressing as the change of pace back for the Steelers, Warren has played a sharp 30 percent of all snaps in the Pittsburgh backfield this season. This is a stark change from a season ago, when Harris led the NFL in snap share by a wide margin, but his snap share is down to 65 percent this year, 13th most in the NFL.
That is a stark change in the type of usage in Mike Tomlin’s previous years. Instead, they are leaning into a stronger committee that is creating efficient, explosive runs that defenses have failed to stop yet. In fact, Harris, Warren, and the rushing offense are the identity of the offense.
Harris struggled early in the season while dealing with a foot injury. During that stretch, Warren stepped up in a big way to establish himself as a viable option in the backfield. But the more important thing might just be how much both players appreciate one another and fit into their roles. Warren embraces his change of pace, third-down role. Meanwhile, Harris, who had seemingly previously been less than open to the idea of another running back easing his workload, has realized the true help Warren has brought to him.
“It helped out a lot,” Harris said. “They came in and told me this year that they would take some pressure off me. They realized they couldn’t put me on the field all the time as I did this year. They said, ‘you need some help if you’re going to be here long enough’, and so, him coming in and making those two plays helped. But before that, I fumbled. So, him coming in and to do all of that, it helps out the team so much.”
Najee Harris is having the most efficient period of his career in the post-bye week. He ranks Top 10 in rushing yards, touchdowns, broken tackles, and yards after contact. Not just that, but he is averaging an efficient 4.2 yards per carry. All of that is a new development for Harris, who had been a volume monster but could be worn down. The sheer number of touches is not necessarily going down a ton, but the snap and mileage on his body is going down. That is the most important thing in this equation. Add in the fact that Harris is like a mentor to Warren and this is a symbiotic relationship in the best way possible.
“It’s been huge and Najee is an inspiration to me,” Warren said. “I always look forward to being a complementary force. It’s a huge deal to me. However I can ease the work for him, he is a workhorse and would take every snap if he could, so as a team, we always look up to that. So, wherever I fit in, I’ll do that.”
There is a noted threshold of pure touches where running backs begin to fall off in their careers. For the NFL, elite running backs often fall off the proverbial cliff at around 3050 touches, according to a study done by Andrew Aziz of Stampede Blue in 2020. That is where the wall comes into collision with any running back, including Najee Harris. That includes college touches.
As it stands, Harris is at 670 NFL touches, but that discards his over 700 college touches, too. With Harris touching the ball nearly 400 times in his rookie season, at the age of 23, he would easily be worn down and could hit the wall even sooner than that average number. In 2022, that number has been slashed by at least a quarter. The emergence of Warren is a direct correlation to this. When you spend a first-round pick on a running back and they are proving themselves as talented, their longevity matters.
Harris, who is meant to be a key cog in this rebuild on the young offense, needs to have a long career for that first-round pick to not only be successful but for him to have a key role even later into his rookie contract. With Warren as his Robin, the Steelers might just extend Harris’ career and get the best version of himself while doing it.