Upon Review: Grading the 2023 Steelers running backs

Steel City Underground presents it’s ‘Upon Review’ series of Pittsburgh Steelers positional group grades for the 2023 NFL season with statistical analysis and performance reviews.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were fortunate, entering the 2023 NFL regular season, that they already knew what capabilities they had in their running backs group. Training camp had simply solidified the status of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren as the primary ball carriers, though the Steelers did roster Qadree Ollison, Anthony McFarland, and Godwin Igwebuike throughout the season. For this review, we chose to focus on the duo that did the majority of the work in the Pittsburgh offense: Harris and Warren.

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Najee Harris

In his third season, Harris was considered the “workhorse” of the Steelers ground game. The approach appeared to be the same entering the season as it had in 2022 under offensive coordinator Matt Canada; Harris would be asked to grind out yardage while Warren would be utilized on special plays and as Harris’ alternative. That two-headed attack was meant to create difficulties for opposing defenses as they attempted to stop the dual threat.

The Steelers ground game did not get off to the best start, however, in 2023. The biggest obstacle early was an offensive line that was unable to produce the kind of push necessary to truly create the type of openings in the trenches that would allow the running backs to get to the next level.

In Weeks 1 and 7, Harris had his lowest output of the season despite starting in all 17 season games. In Week 1, the Steelers hosted the San Francisco 49ers and Harris had just six rushing attempts for 31 yards in the 52% of offensive snaps he was a part of. Overwhelmed up front, the Steelers were playing from behind offensively and they became very one-dimensional. In Week 7, with the Jacksonville Jaguars in town, Pittsburgh only handed the ball off to Harris seven times for 13 total yards and Harris’ lowest yards-per-carry average of the entire season.

After Matt Canada was replaced, Harris’ yardage in the ground game improved. In Weeks 16 and 17, Harris went over 100 yards in a game for the first time in 2023. The play calling favored his north-south style behind an offensive line that had become a more solid piece to the overall offense. Harris was never targeted heavily in the passing game, though. On the season, Harris recorded 255 carries for 1,035 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in 17 games.

His final grade: B

It’s hard to fault Harris for poor play calling and inadequate offensive line play. The fact that Harris seemed to be frustrated and often taken out of games by opponents in the first half of the season did play a factor in his overall grade, though. As the offense struggled to produce – with three quarterbacks running it for Pittsburgh during the season – Harris’ numbers were less impressive. When there was an obvious switch in play style at the end of the season, Harris looked more like the player he’d been drafted to be for the Steelers. Harris ultimately won the “Angry Run of the Year” award at the NFL honors after showing he had the pop and drive to get involved if his supporting cast did their jobs getting blocks that allowed him to get into the open field.

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Jaylen Warren

In his second season, Warren’s production arrow went up to the tune of nearly double the amount of touches he’d been given his rookie season. His rushing yardage total also doubled. Warren – whether due to his size, style, or ability to find a smaller hole than Harris – looked more like a “workhorse” should.

Fair or not, the eye test certainly was more favorable toward Warren than it was the Harris, especially in the early games of the 2023 NFL season.

For the season, Warren recorded 149 carries for 784 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Warren was also utilized much more heavily in the passing game than Harris. On the season, Warren caught 61 passes for 370 yards. His production converted 89 first downs for the Steelers (combined rushing and receiving stats).

His final grade: A

Warren found a way to work inside the system, as messed up and inadequate as the Steelers offense often was during the 2023 season. His total yards from scrimmage totaled 1,154 (rushing plus receiving) compared to Harris’ 1,205. Warren was also awarded an “Angry Runs” scepter by the NFL Network, proving to doubters that the pair of Steelers running backs were truly able to be a threat as long as their own system and coordinators didn’t get in their way.

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Final positional group grade: B+

Factoring in just Harris and Warren, this grade was based on more than just statistical analysis. By default, both primary running backs suffered the effects of an offense that really had difficulty finding its identity until late in the season. Even with Canada gone, the playcalling still required tweaking and adjusting that did not always favor how the running backs were utilized. Opponents were focused on making the Steelers very one-dimensional on offense, purposely; they did so more often, as well, as a result of poor early performances by Pittsburgh that put their weaknesses on tape.

Had the two backs improved at an equal rate, the positional grade may have been a half-grade higher. The tape, however, just didn’t lie when it came to who seemed to handle the adversity more successfully from one game to the next, that being Warren.

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