As the debate over the value of RBs rage, Steelers provide an interesting case study
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The differences between Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren are stark.
Height. Weight. Draft profile. College pedigree. Temperament. Approach to their job.
It's a dichotomy the Steelers believe they can exploit in hopes of getting the best out of both. It's also a compelling case study in the ongoing debate on the value of running backs, a debate with no right answer and maybe no wrong one either.
The 6-foot-1, 232-pound Harris is a 2021 first-round pick who starred at Alabama and arrived in Pittsburgh expecting to be the “bell cow” for years to come, a euphemism coach Mike Tomlin has used on more than one occasion.
The 25-year-old has the prototypical size and approach of a franchise back , eager to stiff-arm a defender to the ground when he can, more eager — and perhaps more suited — to run through opponents than run by them.
Warren is five inches shorter and 17 pounds lighter. His college journey began at Snow College in central Utah before stops at Utah State and Oklahoma State. He arrived at Saint Vincent College for training camp in the summer of 2022 as an undrafted rookie free agent well aware he didn't fit the profile no matter how quickly he seemed to burst through a hole or have his legs churn through the arms of would-be tacklers.
He was always too something. Too short. Too small. Too unknown.
And, it turns out, too relentless to turn away.
Warren made the team as Harris' backup in 2022 thanks in large part to the way he fearlessly throws his body in front of oncoming pass rushers, a skillset he showcased last Sunday against the Raiders when he took on Las Vegas star defensive end Maxx Crosby — all 6-5 and 255 pounds of him — in the first quarter to buy quarterback Kenny Pickett enough time to hit Calvin Austin for a 72-yard touchdown.
“Crosby came looping. I couldn’t just let him go past,” Warren said. "I feel like with the bigger guys, you’ve got to hit them harder than the people that’s not that size because you are going to get run over if you don’t.”
It was the kind of play a guy who knows he can never give a coaching staff a reason to say “no” needs to make. It's also the kind of play the inner masochist in Warren enjoys.
“They say there’s going to be something you hate about your job, I don’t see that as that,” Warren said. "I actually like blitz pickup. I just like the physicality of it.”
While everyone from Tomlin to offensive coordinator Matt Canada emphasizes that Harris is “our guy” as Canada put it Thursday, reality offers a slightly different view.
Heading into Sunday’s visit to Houston (1-2), their playing time and production have been nearly equal.
Harris has 38 touches for 141 yards while playing 53% of the snaps. Warren has 29 touches for 156 yards while playing 43% of the snaps.
Then there's the money. Harris counts $3.5 million against the salary cap. Warren just $874,000, though his take-home pay will take a bit of a hit if he can't get the $48,000 fine he earned for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Cleveland on Sept. 18 overturned on appeal, an amount that's the rough equivalent of two game checks (after taxes).
“Playing for the love of the game the next two weeks,” Warren said with a laugh.
Why not? It's what got him here. It's also why he'll begrudgingly pay the fine if it comes to that and why he shrugged when asked if he plans to do anything differently in the future.
“I'll play the same way,” Warren said. “I wouldn’t have made the team if I didn’t play the way I play do. Damned if I do. Damned if I don’t.'”
There is no rivalry here. Not yet anyway. The Steelers made an intentional decision to take a little bit off Harris' plate after he had an NFL-high 381 touches as a rookie. That number dropped to 313 last season and is on pace to dip a little further in 2023, though it is still really early and Harris' limited touches through three weeks are as much a byproduct of the offense's inability to sustain drives as anything else.
“I think we want to be balanced to a point, but obviously Najee’s our guy and he’s going to have the workload and majority of carries in a lot of instances," Canada said. "But we think Jaylen is a great talent, does a lot of things and when he spells Najee, good things happen too.”
The Steelers had five scoring drives against the Raiders. On four of them, Harris and Warren had at least one carry each.
“As long as we’re trending upwards, that’s all that matters,” Harris said. "The run game is starting to help open up a lot of stuff, play-action started to help to create those big plays. We’re getting there.”
Focus on “we.” While Harris wasn't shy during the offseason about urging the NFL to find a way to pay running backs what they believe they're worth, it hasn't affected his relationship with Warren, who at the moment is providing a similar service for a fraction of the price.
“We are constantly helping each other out, letting each other know what’s going on throughout the game,” Warren said. "Just kind of picking each other’s brain. Competition is what pushes us to be better. But we’re going to be there for each other.”
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