With the Steelers struggling on the ground, the team should turn to the upstart undrafted rookie as opposed to their entrenched starter.
It has been a hard season to watch as a Steelers fan, as this team has seemingly unraveled. Now 2-6 heading into the bye week, things look bleak for this team. While the issues this team has is extensive, one of the glaring weaknesses has been the inability to get the run game going. A bye-week adjustment could help that.
Najee Harris has had a horrible first half of the season. The second-year back was praised as the future of this offense given his first-round billing, and while he was inefficient as a rookie, he did flash some solid runs and catches. That hasn’t been the case his year, as Harris has fallen flat on his face and is a nonfactor in the offense.
While there are other factors to the struggles Harris is going through, let’s make it clear: he is a huge part of the problem. He tries to get into space and more often than not doesn’t take what is given to him. This leads to him being swallowed up on runs for minimal gains.
The Steelers need to get this corrected
On the other side of things, the Steelers have seen some solid play from undrafted rookie Jaylen Warren. The Oklahoma State back is far more decisive and north-to-south than Harris is, and it has resulted in more consistent runs for the team. He is certainly playing well considering how much Harris is struggling.
This isn’t to say that Warren is inherently better than Harris. When in space Harris can brutalize defenders one on one. The issue is, he is so focused on getting to that level that he misses the hole in front of him. He isn’t running behind an Alabama line that opened huge holes for him. He needs to learn to take what he can get.
This also doesn’t mean that Warren will effectively solve the running issues by playing more. He won’t, but I do believe he will be a more consistent threat on the ground. The line, while far from perfect, has been better than many expected. Warren does a good job of taking what they give him. Harris doesn’t.
Things are looking bleak for Harris
Anyone that has followed me knows I wasn’t a fan of the Steelers selecting Harris in the first round. This wasn’t due to me disliking Harris’s game, but more due to the fact that running backs are no longer a needed, dominant position in a modern NFL. I expected Harris to be fine, but to not move the needle on the offense like a first-round pick needs to.
I came away disappointed from his rookie season. Yes, the raw stats look nice; 1667 total yards, ten scores, and he broke Franco Harris’s rookie rushing record. That came off 381 touches though, leading to a mediocre 4.4 yards per touch and a disappointing 3.9 yards per carry. The only reason his stats looked as good as they did was because of the obscene usage he had.
This season has been worse, as Harris seems focused on trying to break a big run every play despite it not being there. He needs to lean into his impressive frame and power, find the hole, and charge through it. If he can’t, his draft status can’t keep him on the offense.
The Steelers must give Warren more snaps
At this point, the team needs to allow Warren to get more opportunities for this offense. He is proving himself to be capable right now, and his play has warranted more snaps. Harris, meanwhile, has proven to be a liability and an ineffective rusher.
I don’t think Warren instantly fixes the run game. He certainly benefits from running against more pass-focused defenses given when he plays. That said, I can’t imagine him playing any worse than Harris. Their split needs to grow closer following the bye until one of them proves to be the better back consistently.
Reducing the snaps for your first-round pick running back is far from ideal, but the team is struggling as a whole, and something needs to change. Warren isn’t an instant fix by any means, but he gives this struggling offense the best chance to get going on the ground. Post-bye week, this team has to give Warren more carries to try and get this offense going.