The Pittsburgh Steelers may be developing a serious problem as the season wears on. The question of whether or not this team is over using Najee Harris needs to be addressed. Harris is currently second behind only Derrick Henry in touches with 136 after just six games. That is nearly a 400 touch pace for the rookie running back. That many times with the ball risks injury, or at least wearing him down to the point of ineffectiveness by the end of the season. Mike Tomlin will need to manage his carries going forward if he wants this amazing rookie season to last seventeen games.
The 400 touch plateau:
As we mentioned earlier, Najee Harris is nearly on pace to hit this infamous number by the end of the season. There are only two active players to have hit this mark. One of course is Le’Veon Bell in 2017 with 406. The other is Christian McCaffery with 403 in 2019. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/touches_single_season.htm
In Bell’s case, he was never the same back again after the 2017 season. After skipping the 2018 season in a contract dispute, Bell had one more decent season with the Jets. He would completely fall off the map by 2020. With McCaffery we are seeing a very similar path. After his monster season of 2019, he missed all but three games in 2020. He is currently injured again this season playing in only half of Carolina’s games so far. It seems clear at this point that too much usage for a running back can have serious consequences.
Big Jump in Usage:
Every rookie who enters the NFL as a starter can expect a jump in his usage. The NFL season is 3-5 five games longer than its college counterpart. Running backs in particular are used much more in the pro game, especially on a team that prefers not to rotate their backs. A good recent comp for the Najee Harris situation is New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley. His rookie season consisted of 261 carries and 91 receptions fo a total of 352 touches. That’s a jump of almost 100 touches (271) from his final season at Penn St. One year later, Barkley was injured and only now is he making his comeback.
Najee Harris was used quite a bit in his final season with Alabama. He ended up with 294 touches in his senior season. Unfortunately, he is also on pace to beat that number by more than 100 this season. These are not easy touches either. Harris is often fighting for every inch with this struggling Steelers offensive line. It’s not just the total number of touches, but the big jump and difficulty of those touches that can lead to injury.
It doesn’t seem very likely that Mike Tomlin will be in any mood to curtail Najee Harris’ usage going forward. Tomlin is well known for the way he covets a bell cow running back. There was lots of talk of scaling back Le’Veon Bell’s touches, only to be scoffed at by Tomlin. At the same time, Harris has become one of Ben Roehtlisberger’s favorite targets as he continues to prefer the short passing game. He will insist on his new weapon being out there as much as possible. All this points to a near record amount of touches for a rookie in the modern NFL.
When you consider how bad this Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line has been so far, and how many hits Najee Harris has already taken, the outlook for him finishing the season healthy is not pretty. Even if Harris manages to finish this season, the long term affects of this type of season are not good. Mike Tomlin should really be looking to dial down the touches going forward, unfortunately that is not in his DNA.