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Jaylen Warren Shining with Limited Playing Time, Could More Be in Order?

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Steelers RB Jaylen Warren

PITTSBURGH — During Pittsburgh Steelers training camp, running back Najee Harris told those vying to be his backup this season that they needed to prepare like they were trying to take his job, not simply emerge as the best of the second group. Jaylen Warren has apparently taken that message to heart.

Warren, an undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma State, emerged as the best of the second group by far through the preseason and training camp, causing the team to cut third-year back Anthony McFarland Jr. and send him to the practice squad while keeping Warren on the 53-man roster.

Since then, Warren hasn’t looked back, turning the purely backup role that Benny Snell Jr. manned in 2022 into more of a change-of-pace option — and he might be in line for more than that.

Through three games, Warren has carried the ball 11 times for 52 yards, a 4.7 yards per carry average. Harris has averaged 3.2 yards per carry on his 40 tries. Obviously, durability and the ability to play for more of the game are a factor, but one could argue that the undrafted Warren has been the better of the team’s two running backs so far this season.

Harris has 10 catches for 48 yards, while Warren has just two for three, but remember that Warren would have had a huge gain on a shovel pass called back due to a penalty against the Cleveland Browns.

The young back has also excelled in pass protection, an area where even highly drafted rookies frequently struggle. According to Pro Football Focus, Warren has not allowed a pressure in 11 pass-block reps. Harris has given up two sacks and one hurry in 24 snaps. Furthermore, Warren has not only blocked his men, but embarrassed a few, as well.

The plan all along was to have somebody to take some carries away from Harris. The NFL’s leader in snaps among running backs last year, Harris’ workload from 2021 just was not sustainable going forward. So someone taking some carries from Harris wasn’t unexpected.

“He’s been doing well,” Harris said. “He’s a good player. I don’t expect nothing less from him when we put him in there. I played a lot last year. We realized that if I’m going to have a long career, that’s not the way to do things, so Jaylen is a good compliment, for sure.”

But nobody expected Warren to out-pace Harris, especially not three games into his career. Warren has still shown the warts of a rookie. He put the ball on the ground in Cleveland, prompting a call to the sideline from head coach Mike Tomlin. But the Steelers put Warren right back into the game, saying only “don’t do it again.”

The Steelers wouldn’t give a lesser player that much leash, and it shows how much faith the coaching staff has in Warren.

Harris has been banged up, recovering from a pair of minor foot issues, and probably still isn’t at full strength. There’s no question yet as to who the Steelers’ top rusher is.

“Obviously, Najee is the guy,” Warren said. “(My role is) just kind of support him in any way: mainly a third down back and get him his rest. When I go in, for about 10 plays a game, I’ve got to make those the best plays ever.”

If he keeps that up, he might get a lot more than 10 going forward.

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