Najee Harris warming to Steelers' running back-by-committee approach

Najee Harris helped get the Steelers going with a 36-yard run against the Saints on Sunday. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- Najee Harris fought it at first.

When Pittsburgh Steelers coaches approached their 2021 first-round draft pick at training camp and told him he wouldn’t be carrying the ball as much as his rookie season -- when he led the NFL with 381 touches -- Harris pushed back.

He’s used to carrying the load. He wants to carry the load.

But the Steelers coaches didn’t want that for him. It wouldn’t benefit the Steelers or Harris long term.

Though he admits it’s still an ongoing adjustment, Harris saw the benefits of sharing the load with rookie undrafted free agent Jaylen Warren in the Steelers’ 20-10 win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday. The offense rushed for a season-high 217 yards -- the Steelers’ best rushing mark since Week 14 of the 2016 season.

“I argued with [running backs coach Eddie Faulkner] going in the preseason vs. the Lions when I came back [from a foot injury],” Harris said. “But just sitting down and having an actual talk about me and my longevity ... they want me here. If I want to keep playing, if I want to be healthy. If I want, when I retire, [not] to walk out on one leg. Then the smartest thing to do is to ... I'm glad as hell I have Jaylen right now. Somebody to come in there and to do what he do and to help me out and spell me.

“As running back, we got one of the hardest positions, if not the most violent position in the NFL. I mean, people last about [three to six] years. You can look anywhere around the league. You need somebody like that. I never really told Jaylen before, but man, in my head, I'm like, 'I appreciate what you do, man. You don't even know it yet.’”

Playing 60% of snaps to Warren’s 43%, Harris put together his best performance of the season with 99 yards on 20 carries, good for an average of 5 yards per carry. Warren had nine carries for 37 yards, and he added three catches on three targets for 40 yards. Harris was targeted once in the passing game -- a would-be touchdown -- but he couldn’t come down with the ball.

It was the second-most balanced division of labor between the two backs since the Week 5 loss to the Buffalo Bills in which Warren played 51% of snaps to Harris’ 49% -- in part because the Steelers trailed most of the game and Warren is valuable for his pass protection. In the final game before the bye, a loss to Philadelphia, Harris played 71% of offensive snaps to 29% for Warren.

“He’s an inspiration to me coming up here,” Warren said. “So I always look forward to being complementary to him, which is a huge, huge deal to me. However I can ease the work for him. He's a worker. He'll take every snap if he could. That's just how he is, and I think as a team we all look up to that. So wherever I fit in to make adjustments, that's where I'll, I'll go.”

Harris got going early with a 36-yard run in the first quarter, and while he downplayed the significance of the run to him as an individual, quarterback Kenny Pickett said Harris’ season-long run helped to jump-start the offense. The run led to a field goal a couple of plays later and gave the Steelers a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.

“That play really sparked the offense,” Pickett said. “We were getting behind Najee and felt great with how he's been practicing and everything. He came to the game with a lot of confidence. It showed. The O-line did a great job as well. They complemented each other as well.”

Thanks in large part to that long run, Harris finished the first quarter with 56 rushing yards, and as a team, the Steelers had 60 first-quarter rushing yards, the most of any first quarter since Week 5 of 2018 against Atlanta.

While Harris got the game going early, Warren shouldered the load late to seal it. After Harris lost his first career fumble in the fourth quarter, Warren was inserted in the lineup and turned a short pass from Pickett into a 26-yard gain a play later. Then, when the Steelers got the ball back just before the two-minute warning courtesy of a Levi Wallace interception, Warren clinched the win with a 21-yard run with 1 minute, 53 seconds to play.

“Jaylen, he made probably two of the most important plays of the game in the end for the catches,” Harris said. “So it helped out a lot. ... [The organization] told me this year that, ‘We're gonna try to take off some pressure off of you. We can't put you on the field whatever amount of plays I did last year. You need some help if you wanna be here long enough.’ So him coming in there, making those two plays, it helped out a lot.”

Part of accepting help came through conversations with Harris’ coaches during the bye week. His first-half production -- 361 rushing yards -- didn’t live up to the goals he set for himself after a quietly impressive rookie season. Harris played through the first eight games of the season with mounting emotions, a double-edged sword that motivated him while also causing him to sometimes do too much.

During the bye, Harris regrouped. He met with his coaches and the offensive line. Though he didn’t divulge specifics of the meetings, Harris said he made an effort to talk with the offensive linemen and work with them in a more symbiotic relationship. Center Mason Cole said the entire offense talked about accountability, not being sensitive to criticism and putting “all hands on deck.” The result was the kind of ground game the Steelers hoped to have all season, the kind that makes life easier on a rookie quarterback and helps open up the passing game, too.

“I think everyone just felt a sense of urgency,” Cole said. “We were 2-6, and we hadn't had a good game running the ball yet. We wanted to have our backs have a really good game like that. And obviously the backs wanted to have a good game. I don't know, maybe it's a change of attitude over the bye week, but it certainly felt good today.”

After not recording a single run of 20-plus yards in the first eight games, the Steelers recorded four against the Saints. While Harris had the longest rush, Pickett also got involved with 55 rushing yards -- including 23- and 12-yard scampers. Wide receiver George Pickens also helped out in the ground game, filling the role previously held by Chase Claypool as the team’s jet sweep specialist. Pickens scored a rushing touchdown and ran an end-around for a 22-yard gain. It was the perfect way to complement Harris and Warren -- and it gave the Steelers a blueprint of run game success to follow the rest of the season.

“I had to revert back to college where I had some help, too,” Harris said. “If a guy's playing every single snap and he's making plays for the team and he's the guy, especially at the running back position, you could just send blitzes at him and pepper him up and just hit him a lot, and then that's wear and tear throughout your career.

“... Am I still adjusting to it? Yeah, I mean, I'm still adjusting to it. I'm a competitor. I wanna play. But are they looking out for me? Yes.”