PITTSBURGH — It’s been a tough year for Najee Harris.
The Pittsburgh Steelers starting running back has had a hard time finding consistent running space all season, and is on pace to see his season-long rushing total decline for the third straight season.
Harris ran 307 times for 1,200 yards as a rookie in 2021. Last season, he toted the rock 272 times for 1,034 yards. This year, it’s been a lack of opportunity. Harris has actually ran for a career-high 4.0 yards per carry, but through 14 games, he has just 183 carries for 723 yards. If Harris continues his average from the first 14 weeks over the next four, he will end up with just 877 yards on the season.
Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts was another tough sledding day for Harris. He ran 12 times for 33 yards, his second straight game under 50 yards and second straight game under 3.0 yards per carry. He also had a critical second-half fumble, his first of the season, which set the Colts up for a back-breaking touchdown.
“Bad day at the office,” offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner said on Thursday. “He needs to play better. We’ve had that discussion.”
Throughout this season, Jaylen Warren has been the more dynamic of the team’s running backs. He is averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and has 652 on the season, just 71 fewer than Harris on 64 fewer carries.
Saturday, something happened that hadn’t all year: Warren significantly out-snapped Harris. Warren played 40 snaps against the Colts. Harris had 20. The duo has nearly equally split time all year, with Harris generally getting a handful more snaps.
Could that be a signal that their timeshare could be changing? Harris has been dealing with a knee injury, so it could just be that. If Saturday was an audition for more playing time, Warren didn’t exactly ace it. He saw more snaps, but had just carries for 40 yards. Slightly better than Harris, but nothing spectacular. The Steelers running game in general has been struggling through this three-game slide.
“We have just been making a huge emphasis this week on finish, finishing our play, finishing blocks, straining, competing,” Faulkner said. “You know, that’s been the main thing. Just a better finish overall I think could be provided by everybody on offense. Anybody involved that’s out there on the grass has to strain better.”
It could be that Saturday was just a bad day at the office for Harris, but it seems clear that the Steelers have one back that has routinely performed better than the other, and it’s not the one that was their first round pick two years ago.
That’s not a bad problem to have in terms of the deployment of players. The Steelers were late adoptees to the realization that teams need more than one good running back to get through a season.
But it definitely confuses the contract situation. Harris will be due a fifth-year extension this offseason, and it’s unclear if the Steelers will want to bite at that price tag, given what they’re getting from Warren for much less.