We May See a Very Different Steelers Roster This Week

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With the Pittsburgh Steelers on bye last week, it feels like it's been forever since we've seen them take the field.  It also feels like a lot has happened to the roster since that last game.  Between trades, injuries, and some potential shifts in the depth chart, we very well could see a different Steelers team out of the bye.

The hype surrounding the Steelers this week is the discussion around running back Najee Harris and his role on this team going forward.  When talking about the upcoming game, coach Mike Tomlin mentioned that they've talked about getting backup, rookie running back Jaylen Warren more carries.  Other reports have circulated, stating that we could start to see Harris phased out of the offense in the coming weeks.  It's hard to know what to believe with these types of the statements, so I try to take them with a grain of salt, but while I do feel a complete phasing out would be harsh, it isn't completely unwarranted.  

To put it bluntly, Harris just hasn't looked good this year.  I wanted to blame his poor play on the foot injury he dealt with all preseason but when asked about it, he continues to insist that his foot is fine and it isn't affecting his play.  So what exactly is the issue then?  Of all running backs with at least 100 carries this year, Harris is averaging the fewest yards per carry out of all of them.  He has fewer rushing yards than Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen.  That's not great.  

And not only do the stats suggest he isn't playing well, but the eye test does too.  For someone his size, I can't name the last time he broke a tackle that led to a big run.  He's not a running back built to outrun defenders but he isn't showing much speed in the open field either.  All around, it just feels like we're seeing a completely different Najee Harris from the one we saw last year in his rookie season.

On the other hand, Jaylen Warren has shown to be effective when he gets the opportunity.  He runs hard and does have more speed than Harris does.  He's able to break tackles and outrun some guys, which is a good combination to have, especially when the guy in front of you is doing neither.  

So I can see why Tomlin wants to give Warren more looks.  That being said, to completely phase Harris out seems like a bit much.  He was the Steelers' first round pick just a year ago, and also the first running back taken in the draft.  To phase him out completely would mean to say you're giving up on him after such a short period of time.  That would be quite the statement.  

To invest the kind of capital the Steelers did in Harris only to give up on him after a year and a half just seems like bad business and basically admits that the pick was a complete whiff on their end.  I don't see Harris getting completely overtaken by Warren, but an even split between the two is certainly within reason given their play so far.

Another difference we will see this week lies with the wide receiver corps.  On Tuesday of last week, the Steelers traded away Chase Claypool to the Chicago Bears for a second round pick.  There had been a lot of rumors in the weeks prior that the Steelers were looking to move the wide receiver.  

I never really considered those to have any validity, but I was very clearly mistaken on that.  Now, his production had been slipping and where he fit into the current form of this offense was a little murky, so I see why they did so.  Especially when you consider the Steelers got a second round pick in return, the same round he was drafted in.  I wasn't upset by the move.  It seemed like a good decision by a team that was setting their sights on the future.

With Claypool now gone, that will open up more targets in the offense for the other receivers.  The initial thought is that a good chunk of those will now move to rookie receiver George Pickens.  He's looked really good in the limited targets he's received so far.  With the extra targets, Pickens can start to develop into the receiver all Steelers fans were hoping he would become after the stellar play we saw out of him during the preseason.  He and quarterback Kenny Pickett seemed to develop quite the rookie connection, so more looks his way will only help this offense going forward.

Given all of the talk surrounding these two changes in the past week, it feels like the likelihood of edge rusher T.J. Watt returning this week has flown under the radar.  It's not a foregone conclusion that he will return, but it seems likely that that will indeed be the case.  If he does, that gives a lift to a defense that hasn't been the same since he was injured.  His return has long been anticipated and with the schedule now a bit more favorable, it couldn't come at a better time.  If the Steelers want any hopes of turning their season around, Watt will be an instrumental part of that.

Lastly, the Steelers special teams could have a new look for the next few weeks.  Yesterday, the team signed kicker Matthew Wright off of the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad.  In their last game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers had to scramble and play rookie kicker Nick Sciba after Chris Boswell experience a groin injury midweek.  With the team signing Wright to the 53 man roster, it sure seems like Boswell's injury is going to linger longer than expected.  

There's even been some speculation that the team would activate Watt from Injured Reserve and replace him with Boswell in that spot, which would keep him out for at least the next four weeks.  If all of this comes to fruition, the kicking game going forward will not be as consistent as we've seen Boswell be for the last several years.

It was only one week off but the Steelers experienced a lot of change on their roster.  Some people may want this team to tank the rest of the season to earn better draft picks, but if they have any hopes of turning it around, that would have to start this week with a win against the Saints.  The return of Watt would greatly steady the defense.  

However, there is a still a lot of uncertainty that comes with all of the other changes.  I have a sneaky suspicion that the Steelers win this week, considering the extra time they have had to prepare and iron out some of the issues we saw leading up to the bye.  However, if there's something I've learned watching this team this year, it's to not get my hopes up too high with them.