The Pittsburgh Steelers appear to have found a franchise running back in Najee Harris. But if they aren’t careful with his workload, they could be looking for a replacement sooner than later.
On Sunday, Harris revealed that he’s been nursing a sprained Lisfranc for nearly a month, according to Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
The second-year back said he suffered the injury during first padded practice of the offseason on Aug. 1 and that it takes 4-6 weeks to heal.
NFL insider Ian Rapoport provided more details regarding the injury and provided an update on Harris' health:
Ian Rapoport @RapSheet
From NFL Now: <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Steelers?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Steelers</a> RB Najee Harris should be fine for the regular season after dealing with a Lisfranc sprain early on in preseason. <a href="https://t.co/Nv2kBfI0C0">pic.twitter.com/Nv2kBfI0C0</a>
While Harris could be back to 100 percent in time for the season opener against the division rival Cincinnati Bengals on September 11, the Steelers should take this experience as a lesson and exercise caution when it comes to managing their star’s touches.
The Steelers lightly utilized the 24-year-old this preseason due to the foot injury. Harris didn’t make his exhibition debut until Sunday evening, rushing four times for 10 yards and catching three passes for 11 yards against the Detroit Lions. Only one of those four carries went for positive yardage.
“I’m just now getting over it," Harris told reporters afterward. "It was getting back in my motions. I was rusty today. It wasn’t a good performance and nothing I should be proud of, either. I need to get better.”
The Steelers need Harris to improve upon that showing. He was the focal point of their offense during a sensational rookie season last year, proving to be a force on the ground and in the passing game.
Harris amassed 1,200 yards and seven touchdowns on 307 carries and hauled in 74 of his 94 targets for 467 yards and three scores. That added up to a league-high 381 regular-season touches, making him the first rookie to lead the NFL in that category since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001.
Despite some wear-and-tear already showing from nearly 400 touches—he had 395 last year, including the playoffs—Harris has made it clear he wants to carry the Steelers’ offense again as a sophomore.
Back in July, Harris said he has “no life” outside of daily training to prepare himself for these types of campaigns. While he had only 718 total touches during his four seasons at Alabama—capping out with 294 as a senior in 2020—he said he “wanted to have more carries” and believes that his conditioning isn’t impacted by heavy workloads.
It may be tempting for head coach Mike Tomlin to continue deploying Harris as a workhorse after comments like that and his wildly effective NFL debut, but the coaching staff must take care to preserve Harris’ health and ability to contribute in the longer term.
The Steelers cannot afford to lose Harris to a significant injury that could impact his availability this season or in the coming years. The team currently doesn’t have a back on the roster capable of replacing Harris in a lead role if he goes down.
Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. are the top two running backs listed behind Harris on the team’s official depth chart.
After coming into the league as a fourth-round pick in 2019, Snell had ample opportunity to prove himself during his first two seasons. While he did notch 794 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 219 carries in that span, he was a non-factor in the passing game, catching just 13 passes for 84 yards, and fumbled three times.
The Steelers nearly phased Snell out of their offense entirely last year, giving him a meager 38 touches across 17 regular-season games.
McFarland has done even less than Snell since entering the league as a fellow fourth-rounder in 2020. He generated a pedestrian 113 yards on 33 rushes as a rookie and only gained three yards on three carries during an injury-plagued sophomore campaign.
Undrafted free agents Jaylen Warren and Max Borghi have been competing in training camp, but they don’t appear to be more than practice squad candidates at this juncture.
While neither Snell or McFarland are superstars in the making, they could handle a few more carries and run a handful more routes each game to take some pressure off Harris. The Alabama product was on the field for 84 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps last year, far more than the 69 percent that rushing leader Jonathan Taylor logged for the Indianapolis Colts.
Harris’ presence elevates the rest of his teammates, and it’s possible that the offense would collapse without him as the centerpiece. Steelers coaches should be taking extra care to avoid that scenario, particularly after his preseason injury scare.
Pittsburgh is already facing an uphill battle to stay competitive due to its quarterback situation.
When Ben Roethlisberger retired this offseason, Pittsburgh lost a future Hall of Famer who ran the offense for nearly two decades. The squad is working to integrate free-agent pickup Mitch Trubisky and rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett under center, but there are likely to be growing pains in the passing game after a long period of stability.
That transition would get exponentially more difficult without Harris available to take the heat off the new quarterbacks.
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is also a work in progress. The unit came in at a concerning No. 26 in Pro Football Focus' end-of-season rankings last year despite Harris’ hard-running ability and Roethlisberger averaging a blazing-fast 2.2-second release time on his passes.
Although the Steelers added James Daniels and Mason Cole this offseason to shore up the interior of their offensive line, PFF doesn’t foresee them making much of a difference. The site ranked Pittsburgh's line 30th heading into this season.
Harris is a unique weapon who could make the Steelers a dangerous offense for years to come. However, he could also join the ranks of once-promising running backs who flamed out early in their careers due to injuries if Pittsburgh doesn’t take care of his body and manage his workload.
The Steelers are now at a crossroads. They need to reduce Harris’ playing time even if it makes them less effective for a few extra snaps each game.