PITTSBURGH — Last week, we lambasted George Pickens for being a less-than-ideal teammate. He had sulked after Diontae Johnson caught the winning touchdown pass to beat the Tennessee Titans. He wanted the ball more and clearly was unhappy about not getting it.
This week, let’s try something a little different. Let’s praise Najee Harris for setting aside his ego for the good of the team. He strikes me as being the perfect teammate. I applaud him for it.
Harris’ willingness to accept a lesser role and split time with Jaylen Warren is a big reason the Steelers are 6-3, just one-half game behind the first-place Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North. It certainly is a big reason for the team’s wins in the past two games against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday and the Titans the Thursday before. Harris and Warren combined to rush for 157 yards and a touchdown in the 20-16 win against the Titans and did even better against the Packers with 183 combined yards and two touchdowns in a 23-19 win.
“I thought those two were playing unreal,” Kenny Pickett said after the win against the Packers.
“It’s a good one-two punch,” center Mason Cole said. “I know those two are close. They want the ball every time. They both want the ball, but they both keep running well.”
The division of labor can’t always be easy for Harris, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2021. He led the NFL with 381 touches (307 runs) as a rookie and still ranked sixth in touches in 2022 with 313 (272 runs) despite a foot injury in the first half of the season. But it’s to the point this season that he’s virtually sharing snaps and touches with Warren, an undrafted free agent. They each played 33 snaps against the Packers, with Harris getting 19 touches and Warren 17. Warren has become the primary back on passing downs.
Consider the Steelers’ touchdown drive on their first possession against the Packers. Harris had five carries for 22 yards and scored the touchdown on a 4-yard run. Warren had a run for 12 yards and caught a pass for 6 yards.
“A huge hole,” Harris said of his touchdown. “Scoring on the first drive two weeks in a row is all on the O-line.”
Now, consider the Steelers’ touchdown drive on their second possession. Warren had four carries for 27 yards and scored the touchdown on a 16-yard run. Harris had runs for 11 and 4 yards.
“That’s kind of how we want to do it — put fresh legs in there,” Warren said after rushing for a career-best 101 yards on 15 carries against the Packers. “Whatever helps us win.”
The success of the running game in the past two games coincided with rookie Broderick Jones taking over at right tackle from Chuks Okorafor. The entire line was outstanding in those two wins.
“I thought our bigs up front on offense did a really nice job of kind of controlling it,” Mike Tomlin said on Sunday.
“All credit to the O-line,” Warren said. “The O-line stepped up in a huge way. They’re all playing together, and it’s showing. We just follow their blocks.”
Tomlin also deserves some love for the way he is using his running backs. For most of his 17 years with the Steelers, he believed in riding one back, his primary ball toter, his bell cow, if you will. But this season, he has realized the benefits of using two backs.
“They’re both starter-capable,” Tomlin said. “They’re competitive guys. We’re going to need ’em both.”
It’s not a stretch to say Harris and Warren have bailed out the Steelers’ lackluster passing offense and the frequent poor play of Pickett. That was definitely the case on Sunday when Pickett passed for just 126 yards. The Packers were powerless to stop the Steelers’ ground game even though they knew the runs were coming.
“We had a lot of calls designed to stop the run, and they were still gashing us,” Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur said. “A lot of missed tackles. It certainly wasn’t good enough.”
The results were fun to watch and satisfying for all of the Steelers.
“We kind of know our identity as a run-team now,” he said.
Tomlin wasn’t in any mood to argue that point — “It feels that way” — but did offer a word of caution.
“Keep watching. You know how it is. We face a really stout defense here coming up this week, from what I hear.”
That would be the Cleveland Browns’ defense on Sunday in Cleveland in a game that could be for first place in the division. The Browns have the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense, giving up only 242.7 yards per game, including 91.6 on the ground. Harris and Warren managed just a combined 63 rushing yards on 16 carries against the Browns here on Sept. 18 in a game the Steelers won, 26-22, because of two big plays by their defense.
It’s fair to think the Steelers’ run game will be much better this time.
It’s hard to believe the Steelers can win if it’s not.
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