Last week on the Yahoo Fantasy Football Show, my colleagues Matt Harmon and Scott Pianowski took to hushed tones while discussing a certain topic: Najee Harris is actually starting to play better this season.
Of course, it was all in jest, but after what has been mostly a rough season for Harris, it was easy to back away from any pronouncements in favor of him. Full disclosure: I was on the Harris train before the season, looking at how his 2022 second-half production and clean bill of health were going to combine with HC Mike Tomlin’s penchant for feeding a bell-cow running back behind an upgraded offensive line. Once the season started, I wanted to pour on some salsa and scarf down those words every time I saw Harris fail to reach 50 rushing yards.
There were rumblings that, during the Week 6 bye, Harris was among a contingent of players who brought some ideas to Steelers OC Matt Canada on how to better execute the running game. Then something happened that made many, including Harmon and Pianowski, take notice. And some talked about it in more than whispers.
Harris scored his first touchdown of the season against the Rams in Week 7. He continued to produce, scoring three times in the four games since the bye. He’s even the RB9 in Weeks 7-10, rushing for 217 yards and adding 78 more yards coming via the air. Against Green Bay’s run defense (No. 26 in rushing yards allowed in that span), it was a great environment for him to continue his resurgence. He put up 96 total yards and scored a touchdown on 20 touches to be the RB10 on the week.
It was also a good situation for him to get some company.
Jaylen Warren, the subject of so much offseason chatter as a player who needed to get rostered for fantasy after some explosive preseason runs, was starting to see more than a few touches as a change-of-pace back. He was even announced as the starter before this past Sunday’s game.
Jaylen Warren was announced as a starter for the first time Sunday. He said Tomlin told him the night before.
"He did kind of mention the night before that whatever had transpired throughout the team, he was saying that he was going to announce me and that I'm deserving of it." https://t.co/DSTs85dRax
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) November 13, 2023
Warren had seen double-digit touches four out of the first five games this season and looked like a draft-day bargain, as he was taken as the RB56 and in the 13th round back in August. He’s currently the RB28, one spot ahead of Harris. With Harris going as the RB11 in the middle of the third round, the loss of touches was making the first-rounder out of Alabama look like a bust.
In the most recent episode of "Ekeler's Edge", Austin Ekeler and Harmon explored the parallels between the current Harris-Warren situation with what Ekeler, a fellow undrafted free agent like Warren, experienced his rookie year playing with another first-rounder, Melvin Gordon (just like Harris).
Ekeler said how their two styles were similar to the Pittsburgh duo: Warren more of the slasher with quick burst and excellent pass-catching ability, like Ekeler; Harris, the larger back and early-down banger who could wear down a defense, like Gordon. Both tandems were built upon complementary skill sets, with each being able to keep the other fresh by focusing on what they do best.
The 2018 season saw the Chargers' Ekeler-Gordon tandem break out similar to what we may be seeing with Warren-Harris. Gordon finished as the RB7, with Ekeler flashing his dual-threat ability to finish as the RB24 with 908 total yards, including 39 receptions. Recent events for the Steelers duo are eerily similar.
The past two weeks especially, it looks like both have utility and could deliver some level of value as either an RB2 or flex play going forward. Warren surpassed Harris during Week 10, rushing 15 times for 101 yards and a touchdown, adding 9 receiving yards on a pair of catches. That was good enough for RB7.
The previous week, Harris came in as the RB12 while Warren was right behind him at RB14. Could both of these Pittsburgh backs be viable as starters during the ultra-important fantasy playoff runs? They can.
The Steelers have leaned into their attacking defense and running game, and that’s putting more of the spotlight on Harris and Warren. Last week, Kenny Pickett passed 23 times while the running back tandem combined for 31 totes. The previous week against a strong Tennessee run defense, Pickett passed 30 times, while the Harris-Warren duo totaled 27 rush attempts for 157 total yards.
With running back production so scarce this time of year, it’s just not probable to sit either of these two in fantasy lineups. Especially with some big bye weeks on the horizon. This week’s matchup is an AFC North bare-knuckle brawl with the Cleveland Browns defense that is allowing 107.3 rushing yards per game since Week 7. Gus Edwards, Keaton Mitchell and Justice Hill combined for 65 rushing yards against them this past week. It won’t be easy sledding, but Harris and Warren are startable this week with as much emphasis as the Steelers are putting on the running game.
The fantasy playoffs for the Steelers feature road games against the Colts and Seahawks, with a home matchup against the Bengals in the middle. All three defenses have been beaten up by running backs of late, so it would be almost poetic for Harris and/or Warren to deliver for fantasy managers during those most important weeks.
Let's examine a few other teams with question marks in their backfields.
So what’s to be made of Rico Dowdle’s 12 rushes for 79 yards and a score last week? Fantasy social media has had some fun at the expense of Tony Pollard losing carries and not having scored a touchdown since Week 1. Heck, Andy Behrens has even renamed the Coping Corner on the weekly People’s Panic Meter episode after Pollard. It’s now Pollard’s Playground, and listeners/viewers can no longer ask or complain about the Dallas running back. In a 49-17 pasting of the Giants, seven Cowboys touchdowns were scored; none by Pollard. His fantasy managers are on DEFCON 4 at this point after he was a second-round pick and the RB6 in fantasy drafts.
Pollard carried the ball 15 times for 55 yards in Week 10, and has 529 rushing yards on the season. He’s just behind the pace that saw him hit 1,007 rushing yards last year. Is he at all limited by the fractured ankle he sustained in the playoffs? He’s not going to let on.
What should be focused on is the snap count for each in this game. Pollard played 53 snaps and Dowdle 22. Also, Pollard ran the ball 11 times in the first half, while Dowdle rushed four times. It was in the first half that the Cowboys built a 28-0 lead and put the game on cruise control after that.
It’s hard to see Dowdle’s Week 10 production as anything more than a blowout mirage. He doesn’t have more than 24 yards in any other games, and was the clear second back when the game was competitive. Pollard is still the top back, but this team is leaning into the passing game and the Dak Prescott-CeeDee Lamb connection. After traveling to Carolina, the Cowboys are home for three games against Washington, Seattle and Philadelphia. Expect the emphasis on passing — and the head-scratching for Pollard fantasy managers — to continue. Dowdle is a bye-week punt play, and otherwise a bench stash in case of injury.
Where have you been, De’Von Achane? The fantasy nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Waiting for the return of Achane has been similar to kids waiting to open their presents during the holidays. Fantasy managers rostering Achane just can’t wait to insert him back into their lineups.
Could he come back at full speed when he returns? Dr. Edwin Porras pointed out the comparison between Achane’s injury and Nick Chubb’s in 2020. Chubb missed four games, and when he returned he rushed 19 times for 126 yards and a score in his first game. So there is precedent for Achane to return from his knee sprain at full speed. It’s been five weeks since he went on IR, and the 21-day practice window has been opened. If he’s active, that’s going to have an impact on Raheem Mostert.
Mostert is the overall RB2 on the season, but he needed the bye week. In his last three games, Mostert recorded just a single reception for 6 yards. He did have 85 yards and a score against the Chiefs in Week 9, but before that combined for 91 yards total in the previous two games.
When Achane returns, he’ll likely see 10-15 touches like he did in Weeks 4 and 5, before he went on IR. He had 285 total scrimmage yards in those games, so he is beyond efficient. The Dolphins meet the Raiders this week, and Vegas has given up 626 rushing yards since Week 7, the second-highest total during that span. Saquon Barkley, D’Onta Foreman and Jahmyr Gibbs have all blown past 100 scrimmage yards against the Raiders since Week 7.
At the very beginning, Achane will probably not get a full workload. Mostert needs to take advantage of every opportunity to touch the ball, because when Achane ramps up he could leave his teammate behind as if he were a defender who missed in space.
In consecutive weeks Devin Singletary went from the outhouse to the penthouse. Or, in fantasy terms, he went from being on the bench/drop line to every-week starter consideration on a hot offense helmed by a rookie phenom. Can there be a greater 180-degree turnaround?
That’s what happens after a 30-150-1 performance against Cincinnati’s solid defense. The 22.60 fantasy points left him as the RB3 on the week. People who drafted or picked him up are now holding out hope they have a league winner.
With home dates in the next three weeks against Arizona, Jacksonville and Denver, it could mean Singletary runs away with the job. Does that mean that Dameon Pierce has been Wally Pipped? Pierce was not having a good season, as through Week 8 when he injured his ankle he was the RB34 with just 327 rushing yards on 109 carries. There was some chatter that he was not a good fit for the offense, and now he’s missed the last two games. Could Pierce be a cut casualty on fantasy teams?
That’s a very real possibility. This time of year it’s hard to cut a running back, because when he’s healthy Pierce is a Singletary sprained ankle from getting a full workload. If he’s the last man on a fantasy bench with, say, Keaton Mitchell as a replacement option, yes, Pierce is a cut candidate.
Unless it’s a pickup with immediate upside, Pierce should be treated as a purely backup option for Singletary.
The dreaded concussion protocol has called Alexander Mattison’s name, and he’s playing the waiting game to get cleared. That could mean he plays next week or maybe sits a game or two. There’s really no way to know, so consider Mattison out until he’s actually cleared to play.
Ty Chandler, a fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, was the next man up in Week 10, and responded with 15 carries, 45 yards and his first NFL touchdown. Chandler will be the logical replacement for Mattison if he’s out, and there may be a larger role for him ahead if the second-year back takes advantage of an increased role. Mattison was just the RB27 on the season, posting 130 carries for 461 yards and a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry. With Justin Jefferson having started his 21-day practice window, the Vikings are 6-4 and in the playoff hunt. Football being very much a meritocracy, Chandler has an opportunity to earn extra snaps the rest of the season if he performs well.
If he’s the lead back, Chandler has a great matchup in Denver coming up next. Bills running backs James Cook and Latavius Murray combined for 177 yards Monday night against the Broncos, who are 25th in allowing 130.7 rushing yards per game since Week 7. When Mattison returns, it could at the very least be a 60/40 split that is awaiting Chandler. Anything more is up to him.