Jaylen Warren, fresh off of a solid rookie season, is having a good training camp, good enough that some on the outside feel that there's a possible position battle brewing in Pittsburgh between Warren and starting running back Najee Harris.
When asked about a possible change in the division of labor among the Steelers' running backs, offensive coordinator Matt Canada made it clear that Harris' status in the offense hasn't changed, even if his workload might.
"I think that Najee's our one. There's no doubt about that," Canada said. "And I mean, I think we're protecting him to get him to that point. ... I'm never going to lock ourselves into any kind of what it's going to be or how it's going to go. I don't think that's fair to anybody. But that's certainly, we're planning on Najee being Najee, you know, when we start the regular season."
Harris, a 1,000-yard rusher each of his first two seasons in Pittsburgh, had just two carries for 6 yards in the Steelers' preseason wins over Tampa Bay and Buffalo. Warren has four carries for 75 yards this preseason that includes his 62-yard touchdown run against the Bills. Canada confirmed that Harris' reduced workload, both in games as well as in practices this summer, is part of a bigger plan.
"A lot of it is keeping him fresh for the season," he said. "You look at what we asked Naj to do the last couple years. I mean, you guys talked about it after his (rookie season), right? How many touches he had, how many times he was on the field, the amount of plays, and all of those things. And last year, you know, we reference after the bye a lot, we ran the football quite a bit and Naj was a big, big part of it. Not that Jaylen wasn't.
"Your body can take so much. We feel like he's done a lot. And we're going to continue to want to get him to the show and get him ready to go play for us. And so, it's been a systematic plan to keep him upright and at the same time getting ready to play. And that's a fine balance for everybody."
Harris looked like a man on a mission last summer until he suffered an injury that temporarily kept him off the practice field. When he returned, he tried to make up for lost timefor sometimes up to an hour after practice had ended.
While some wondered whether or he had fully recovered from his injury, Harris nevertheless played in each of Pittsburgh's 17 regular season games. His productivity wasn't great early on, however. He averaged fewer than 4 yards-per-carry in six of Pittsburgh's first seven games. Harris didn't brake the 90-yard rushing barrier until Week 9. His only 100-yard rushing performance occurred in a Week 16 win over the Ravens.
Aside from a possible injury, there are a myriad of reasons for Harris' slow start. Pittsburgh's quarterback situation was in flux with Mitch Trubisky starting the year, then getting replaced by rookie Kenny Pickett in Week 4. Pittsburgh's offense line was also still a work in progress. It also didn't help matters that the Steelers faced some of the NFL's better defensive units during the first half of last year's schedule.
Harris and the Steelers' offense eventually got into a rhythm after their bye week. Pittsburgh went 7-2 after its bye, with Harris and the emerging Warren playing a large role in that success. An undrafted rookie out of Oklahoma State, Warren finished the 2022 season with 77 carries, 105 total touches and a 4.92 yards-per-carry average.
"Obviously, Jaylen had a really, really good run (against the Bills) and excited that it got all the way to the end zone, finished the run," Canada said. "You guys are here. He finishes a lot of runs in practice and that was really good for him to do that.
"So yeah, Jaylen, he's a guy that you look at last year on third down and all the things he did coming in as a rookie. And we'll continue to use, use all of our weapons. But happy with the way he's performed through camp."
It appears that Warren's strong summer has reinforced what Canada and Co. want to do this season. Harris will start and get a good portion of the work, but Warren will also get considerable work. Anthony McFarland, who has also had a solid summer, will likely get some work in the backfield as well.
A strong backfield can do a lot of things for a team, including providing support for a quarterback. That certainly isn't lost on Pickett, who is certainly happy to see the emergence of Warren in Pittsburgh's backfield.
"Some guys just have a knack for making plans, and Jaylen is one of them," Pickett said following Saturday night's game. "I think his toughness, his speed, the different aspects. It's kind of like thunder and lightning with him and Najee. I think those two have a really good balance off each other. They both do great things. They both do things differently. And I think it's great to have that combination in the backfield."
When it comes to Warren, he said that he will embrace whatever role the Steelers ask him to fill this season. In his mind, Warren is still that undrafted rookie grinding to make the roster.
"I know the plays better,"earlier this summer when asked to compare his first two training camps. "I'm comfortable with with my teammates now. There's some comfort there, but I'm trying not to get too comfortable."