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Predicting the Steelers run game in 2023, Najee Harris-Jaylen Warren splits and more

Who will be the biggest contributors for the Steelers on the ground this year, and how does it all add up?

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Arguably the biggest storyline for the Steelers this year is the projected development of Kenny Pickett and the impact that will have on our offense. That’s far from the only big story on offense, though, as the development of our OL and the impact on both run and pass is also huge.

There are also plenty of young players developing besides Pickett, and how much they can develop is a big question. This is all guesswork at this point, but one thing that can make the guesswork a little more reasonable is to address all the questions together as a whole.

Looking at the big picture helps develop a more realistic expectation for individual players and for the team as a whole. There are still a lot of different ways things could go, but accounting for all the variables definitely helps you get closer to a reasonable estimate.

The Steelers’ run game

The Steelers are pretty obviously looking to establish the run game given the personnel they’ve acquired and overall messaging from the front office. It’s still a passing league, though, and even “run heavy” may not mean actually running more run plays than pass plays. Last year, only 7 teams ran more than they passed, and only two of those ran more than 52% of the time (Chicago and Atlanta, not exactly teams you want to emulate). So let’s make it easy and say the Steelers' run/pass ratio is 50/50 straight up. We’ll say the offense runs 1,050 plays, which is about average based on last year, and that means 525 running plays with the following results.

Steelers WRs: 40 attempts, 250 yards

Let’s start with the small contributions because there’s not a huge amount of variability here, making them fairly easy to predict. It’s not like we’re going to see a surprise 500-yard rusher among the wide receivers this year. These numbers would amount to equal volume from last year, with a slight bump in yardage because Calvin Austin is really fast.

RB Anthony McFarland, TE Connor Heyward, FB/OL Kendrick Green: 35 attempts, 150 yards, 3 TD

Again, you expect minimal contribution from the back of the roster, which will be consistent from year to year. A couple of gadget plays per game is probably all we’ll see of this group, but goal-line situations and McFarland’s speed could lead to a few scores.

QB Kenny Pickett: 70 attempts, 375 yards, 4 TD

This is an interesting one because we saw two Kenny Picketts as a runner last season. In midseason form, he was averaging 6 carries and 30 yards per game, a pace that would equal 500 yards on 100 carries over 17 games. After his second concussion, he averaged less than 4 carries per game and only 4 yards per game. I expect he’ll limit his carries this year due to better protection, safety concern, and wanting to prove himself as a passer, but he’ll make those carries count when he does take off. That leaves 380 carries for Harris and Warren.

RB Jaylen Warren: 100 attempts, 500 yards, 1 TD

Finally, we’re to the actual running backs. Warren was just too effective to keep off the field last year, and that will likely continue this year even with defenses looking out for him. He was frankly better than Harris statistically, even as a rookie, and should be expected to continue to steal carries from Harris in year two. Based on his usage over the second half of last season, he would be in line for about 100 carries this year. He’s not a red zone RB so he won’t have many touchdowns, but he’ll get his carries and yards.

RB Najee Harris: 280 attempts, 1,150 yards, 9 TD

And the star of the show of course is Harris. Harris actually ends up with 8 carries more than last year despite Warren eating more into his workload, based on the assumption that the Steelers will be even more run-heavy.

I projected Harris at 4.1 yards per carry for the first time in his career due to the fact that he should have better blocking, and he did average 4.1 over the second half of last season. You could maybe argue me up to 4.3, which would give him a total of 1,200, but at the end of the day, he’s a grinder, not an Alvin Kamara. I boosted his touchdown total a bit, as well, as I expect the Steelers to overall be more effective in the red zone.

Steelers projected rushing totals: 525 attempts, 2,325 yards, 17 TD

Last season, this would’ve ranked the Steelers eighth in the league in total rush yards, just behind the 49ers (2,360), which seems reasonable. Of course, you never know what will actually happen, and the Steelers could certainly have more or less.

Looking at the whole picture, though, at least gives you an idea of what variables would need to change and by how much, and whether the resulting outcome would be very realistic