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Why Has Jaylen Warren Been Better than Najee Harris and What Do the Steelers Do Now at RB?



Steelers Harris Watt Warren

PITTSBURGH — Thought the first half of his rookie season, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Warren has been a revelation.

The undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma State has made a big impact in his first eight games and has done so with a poise and demeanor that more often fits older more experienced players. Warren doesn’t just run, he runs hard. He also blocks and catches and does most of the other things that NFL teams ask of their running backs well.

As Najee Harris’ understudy, Warren has rushed 29 times for 153 yards so far this season for an electric 5.3 yards per carry. Last year as a rookie, Harris averaged 3.9 yards per carry. This season, that figure has slid to 3.3 yards per carry, while Warren has surged.

Obviously, there is a big difference between running the ball successfully 29 times and the hundreds that Harris has done, but to this point, it’s hard to say anything other than that understudy has out-shined the headliner.

In addition to his better yards per carry, Warren has a higher yards per target in the passing game, 6.3 to 4.0.

The big question is why. Nobody thought Warren was much more than training camp filler when the Steelers signed him in April. Harris was the first running back taken in the 2021 NFL Draft and appeared to be the spiritual successor to Derek Henry when it comes to former Alabama running backs in the NFL.

Part of the problem is that Harris has not been healthy. A Lisfranc sprain suffered at the end of training camp didn’t keep Harris from participating in all of the Steelers games this season, but he started the year with a steel plate in his foot. Even now that it’s gone, he doesn’t seem to have the same explosiveness he had as a rookie.

There’s also the question of how their usage has been divided. Warren has mostly played on third downs when games are tight and has gotten a lot of mop-up duty in games where the Steelers trailed by multiple scores. Those aren’t exactly times that opponents are expecting a run.

Running on first down, Warren has 13 carries for 37 yards — a 2.8 yards per carry average. Harris has 73 carries for 281 yards on first downs, checking in a 3.8 yards per carry.

“Some of it is situational,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said Tuesday. “He’s been in more third downs with some of those things. With the way the picture is, the box and some of those things are situational, and also how many players are in there to tackle you. He’s been seeing more success with yards per carry, that’s part of it. …

“Najee came out of camp [after the injury] and was getting himself back to full speed. So, it’s a combination of both. But they have been in different situations in a game.”

That leaves the Steelers in somewhat of an interesting predicament as to what to do with their running back rotation in the second half of the season. Overall, Warren has been better, so it would make sense to give him more playing time. But the only playing time that’s left for Warren to eat into takes him into more first-down, obvious-run situations, where Harris has played better than Warren.

There’s also the fact that the Steelers invested a whole lot in Harris when they used a first-round pick on him in 2022. The Steelers have committed themselves to playing Kenny Pickett instead of worrying about which quarterback gives them the best chance to win every week. It would be reasonable for them to make a similar stance at running back. 

Getting Harris back to looking like the kind of player that he showed flashes of being as a rookie would go a long way to improving the team’s outlook for 2022 and beyond.

“We just continue to remind him, ‘We just need you to be yourself,’” running backs coach Eddie Faulkner said. “We need you to go do what Najee Harris is capable of doing.”

Of course, being tied to Harris in that way is exactly why many advocate that teams should not draft running backs in the first round. Production at the position is often hard to predict, inconsistent, and dependent on too many external factors.

RELATED: Najee Harris Frames Rushing Failures: ‘I Can’t Do Everything’

But what’s done has been done, and the Steelers are now in the unenviable position of trying to get the most out Harris while at the same time, giving Warren the ability to continue to grow in meaningful ways.

Mike Tomlin has been very hesitant to turn to the running back by committee rotation that has largely taken over the rest of the NFL. But he may not have a choice for the rest of 2022. 

The Steelers need Harris to be good, but Warren has been playing better, and there’s no easy way to sort that out.

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