The fact the Pittsburgh Steelers want to decrease Najee Harris’ workload in 2022 is no secret. After a rookie season which saw Harris have an unbelievable 381 touches, both rushing and receiving, the team wisely is planning on lowering that number this season.
During mandatory minicamp this week, Harris has already said the coaching staff has spoken about lightening his workload, but he still wants to be on the field a lot.
This per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Najee Harris said he and the coaches have talked about lightening his workload. He’s ok with it, but he said those discussions are ongoing. He still wants to be on the field a lot.— Ray Fittipaldo (@rayfitt1) June 7, 2022
When I read this quote, it got me thinking about how the Steelers might deploy backup running backs if they were to head into the regular season with only players on the current depth chart.
Sure, the team could use some of their $20 million dollars in salary cap space to sign a veteran running back, but they also could go into training camp with the following running backs:
Benny Snell Jr.
Anthony McFarland Jr.
Mataeo Durant *
Jaylen Warren *
I could easily put players like Derek Watt and Connor Heyward in this category, but those aren’t realistic options, in my opinion.
Before going any further, we first need to understand not all of the above names will make the 53-man roster. The Steelers value their draft picks, which bodes well for Snell and McFarland. The next question to answer is how many backs they plan on keeping on their roster. In 2021 they kept four, but a case could be made to just keep three and also have Watt and Heyward round out the group.
Either way, the Steelers don’t want Harris coming off the field, but also realize they need to keep their star running back as healthy as possible. So, what will that look like? How will they accomplish this feat without weakening the offense?
As I look at the depth chart, I also need to consider the skills of the backs on the roster. On top of their skills, trying to decipher how the team will spell Harris is certainly something to discuss.
If the goal was to remove Harris from the field when his weakest skill set was going to be used, most would assume that would be in pass protection. It isn’t as if Harris isn’t capable or willing to pick up the blitz, but of all he does well, blitz pickup isn’t the strongest facet of his game.
Is there a back on the roster who thrives in this role? A player who could come in on obvious passing downs and not just pick up the blitz, but also be an occasional target for Matt Canada to gain necessary yardage? When I think about backs who have fit this description in the past, players like Mewelde Moore and Verron Haynes come to mind. Both were more than capable in this role.
But would having a player who thrives on third downs be enough to truly get those touches down for Harris in 2022?
Another option is to have a back who can spell Harris for a series, or two. In theory, this is not a difficult request, but if we’ve learned anything from Mike Tomlin in his tenure with the Steelers it is how he doesn’t like to rotate running backs. He didn’t with Le’Veon Bell and James Conner, and he will likely follow suit with Harris.
On top of that, does anyone trust Snell and/or McFarland to come into the game and be able to carry the baton until Harris is back on the field? In 2021 fans saw Snell attempt this on more than one occasion, only to see the offense flounder until Harris returned to the lineup.
We can talk about blitz pick up, receiving capabilities, hard-nosed running styles and more, but to me this discussion is purely window dressing. The Steelers drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft because he was exactly what they want in their running back. He’s tough, disciplined and willing to do whatever it takes to win. This would mean staying on the field as much as possible.
Yes, he’s the bell cow back Tomlin loves.
Just look at the last line of Fittipaldo’s quote above:
“He still wants to be on the field a lot.”
Do you know who else wants him on the field a lot too? Mike Tomlin. So while we can debate how the Steelers will try and decrease Harris’ touches in 2022, barring something drastic happening, like an injury, I don’t see it happening. Otherwise, look for Snell to pick up where he left off in 2021, with 38 total touches throughout the season.
Is this the answer Steelers fans want to read? Absolutely not, but it’s also the reality of the situation. Barring the team bringing in a veteran, like a DeAngelo Williams type back, expect more of the same with Harris’ workload in 2022.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they press on throughout mandatory minicamp.