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Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren Can Coexist Within Steelers Offense

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Steelers Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris at training camp, Aug. 8, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Through the first two preseason games, the Pittsburgh Steelers starting offense has unleashed a chain of explosive gains. On the sixth play from scrimmage against the Buffalo Bills, running back Jaylen Warren ripped off an exhilarating 62-yard run for a touchdown. The Steelers put on display a teach-tape worthy example of how to run outside zone to the weak side. It was a rare example of a play that was executed exactly how it’s drawn up on the white board. 

Predictably, social media quickly turned an exciting splash play into a full-blown controversy. Members of the media, fantasy football gurus and fans alike started giving their takes regarding the Steelers backfield. Perhaps one thing that has made those rumblings a little bit louder has been Najee Harris’ quiet summer. There was virtually no buzz surrounding Harris the entire time the team was in Latrobe for training camp. 

That was by design. The coaching staff described Harris as a veteran who simply didn’t need as many reps. Harris, the incumbent starter, has tallied just two so far in the preseason. This decision has left more opportunities on the table for his backups such as Jaylen Warren, who has seized those chances with yet another strong summer. 

On Monday, Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada made it abundantly clear that Harris would remain the teams lead back. It’s not as if Pittsburgh is trying to foster a running back competition, they’re simply trying to make sure that their first round investment is healthy once the regular season kicks off. That seems reasonable. After all, Harris was completely worn down by the time that the Steelers limped into the playoffs in 2021. As you’ll recall, Harris also dealt with a lisfranc injury throughout last preseason that lingered several weeks into the fall.

NFL Steelers Running Back Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris, Dec. 11, 2022. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The former first-round pick played with a steel plate in his cleat during the first five games of the 2022 season, in which his efficiency suffered drastically. The Steelers were on a four-game losing streak with Harris averaging 3.2 yards per carry in the process. Pittsburgh is simply trying to avoid a sequel at all costs by reducing his potential exposures to injury in meaningless games.

What followed after the Steelers bye week last season once Harris worked his way back to 100% was a beautiful thing: the offense was humming behind it’s rushing attack. Even with a rookie quarterback under center, the Steelers were 4th in EPA/play and rushing EPA/play while ranking 3rd in rushing success rate per RBSDM.com. It’s worth noting that they went 7-2 in that time span, just narrowly missing the postseason after a horrific start to the season.

In the process of all of that, Pittsburgh finally discovered an identity on offense, led by Harris and supported by Warren on the ground. It’s clear that the front office bought into this philosophy, too. By adding Isaac Seumalo, Broderick Jones and Darnell Washington up front, you could see that the team was all-in on this physical approach moving forward. They aren’t just trying to run this thing back, they’re trying to make this unit even more dangerous.

So what does the distribution of labor look like? To begin the season, it will likely be similar to what we saw last season. Harris will be the early down back and handle most of the short yardage work. Warren will spell him every so often while occupying the backfield in most obvious passing down situations. 

For those clamoring for a heavier workload for Warren, context is necessary. Yes, Warren’s yards per carry (4.9) and EPA/attempt (.10) figures blow Harris out of the water. It’s fair to also point out that both backs aren’t being game planned for with the same amount of detail, nor are they being asked to tote the rock is the exact same circumstances. We also have decades worth of data that tells us that added volume typically spawns less efficiency. 

Steelers RB Jaylen Warren

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Warren. Aug. 19th, 2023 — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

There could certainly come a time, possibly even this year, where Warren is so explosive and so brutally efficient that he takes over as the lead back in this committee. But it’s such a small sample size of just 77 carries that it’s still too soon to make that distinction. Over the course of the 2023 campaign, both backs will have their chance to state their claim for more touches. With two talented, motivated ball carriers in the same backfield, the real winner here is the Steelers offense. 

It’s entirely possible that Pittsburgh has two starting quality tailbacks on the roster. That’s a good thing. In fact, most of the league has shifted towards a multi-running back attack. With both Harris and Warren on rookie-scaled contracts, the Steelers aren’t in a predicament to choose between one or the other. 

The run game is going to be the foundation of an offense that has real playoff aspirations this season. The blueprint is there and there’s already some proof that it can be successfully. Now it’s time to trust the process.