Pittsburgh Steelers suckerpunched in PFF's 2024 running back rankings

Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren have some new fuel for the 2024 season after being disrespected by Pro Football Focus.
AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills
AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

It took a little while to get the gears spinning for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2023 season. While their passing offense remained a disaster throughout the year, their rushing attack proved to be one of the most effective units down the stretch last year.

Much of this can be attributed to an offensive line that finally gelled late in the season. Isaac Seumalo proved to be a great addition to the OL in free agency last offseason, while 2023 first-round pick, Broderick Jones, was starting to come into his own.

But we also need to point to the two-headed monster leading the rushing attack.

Najee Harris is coming off his most consistent and efficient season since being selected by Pittsburgh in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He notched 1,035 yards and pitched in 8 rushing touchdowns while managing 4.1 yards per carry. Jaylen Warren was even more efficient as he churned his way for an impressive 5.3 yards per carry and recorded over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.

This is attributed to the league's 11th-best rushing tack in 2023 in terms of yards per game. But despite the impressive play from the backfield, Pro Football Focus isn't impressed.

Recently, Trevor Sikkema of Pro Football Focus ranked all 32 running back units in the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers shockingly ranked in the bottom half of the league. Sikkema had the Steelers as the 17th-ranked RB unit in the NFL entering 2024. Here's what he had to say.

Both Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren were top-25 running backs in PFF wins above average in 2023. The Steelers ranked 13th in the league in PFF rushing grade from their running backs, and 14th in EPA per rush.

Warren and Harris each averaged more than 4.0 yards per carry, as well, and the two remain a very solid duo for 2024."

Trevor Sikkema, via Pro Football Focus

Steelers RB unit should be ranked much higher

It seems odd that Pittsburgh can finish 11th in rushing, 13th in rushing grade, and 14th in EPA, yet still rank in the bottom half of the league when it comes to running back units. This comes after the arrow was clearly pointed up late in the season.

Some of the teams that were slotted just ahead of the Steelers in 2024 running back unit rankings were James Conner and the Cardinals, a Derrick Henry-less Titans team, and Kenneth Walker's Seattle Seahawks. Above these teams were the Vikings, Jaguars, and Rams.

Along with Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, the Steelers also added a capable veteran and future Hall of Fame return man, Cordarrelle Patterson, to their roster ahead of the 2024 season. Patterson isn't expected to see much work from the backfield, but he has worked well in Arthur Smith's offense in Atlanta and serves as a quality backup in the event of an injury.

On top of this, Pittsburgh's offensive line could take a big step forward this year -- which will have a direct impact on the efficiency of the rushing game. Mason Cole and Dan Moore Jr. have been replaced by Zach Frazier and Troy Fautanu -- Pittsburgh's top two selections in the 2024 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Broderick Jones is set to move back to his natural position at left tackle and will be another year further along.

The collection of these factors indicates that Pittsburgh should have earned more respect in PFF's running back rankings. Slotting above 29-year-old Aaron Jones and the Vikings in the 13th spot would have been more reasonable.

Regardless, Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris will gladly fly under the radar if only to prove doubters wrong in 2024. With Arthur Smith at OC and an improved offensive line, the Steelers could prove to possess a top-10 running back unit in the NFL this season.