As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Sunday’s home opener against the New England Patriots.
X-FACTOR(S): RB Jaylen Warren
True to his word, Najee Harris is playing in Sunday’s home opener against the New England Patriots. He’ll start, he’ll play, he’ll be the team’s #1 back. But Harris isn’t going to be at 100%, battling foot injuries since literally one of his first carries of training camp. Even before getting his leg bent back 90 degrees against the Cincinnati Bengals, Harris wasn’t playing his usual all-situations amount of snaps, rookie Jaylen Warren picking up eight before taking over post-Harris’ injury. Warren held his own, passing the first test of his regular season career. Coaches have more trust in him going forward and with Harris battling a lingering foot injury, Warren is likely to get more burn, especially with Pittsburgh on a short week and playing next Thursday.
If the Steelers want to start 2-0, their backs have to run the ball more effectively than last week. That begins up front with an offensive line that must get a better push than they did last week. Keeping Harris fresher by giving Warren more chances is the smart play. Warren is a tough mudder whose hard to bring down with a small surface area and a pissed off attitude. He can churn out tough yards needed behind a line that isn’t opening up big lanes.
Just as importantly is pass protection, an area where Warren also shined. Just as he showed at training camp, Warren is a tough, fearless customer who put a couple of linebackers on their butt last weekend. He showed good awareness to scan and pick up blitzers, playing beyond where a typical rookie sits. He picked up a blown protection on the Steelers’ offensive snap, allowing Mitch Trubisky to throw the ball out of bounds and kick Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal. If he takes a sack there, the game ends in a tie, not a Steelers’ win.
His pass pro is important this week against a Patriots’ linebacker room that’s aggressive and big with an old-school linebacker like J’wuan Bentley who weighs in around 6’1, 245 and looks even heavier than that.
It’s still likely Harris out-snaps and out-touches Warren. Harris needs to play well, that’s going to be true every week. But I could see a pretty close spit of opportunity between the two. And when Harris is off the field, there can’t be a dropoff in play and Warren will be tested by a stout and sound Patriots’ defense.