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Jaylen Warren's unlikely rise fueled by determination and fury. The Steelers are better off for it

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jaylen Warren plays football with a calculated fury.

That's never going to change in part because he knows it simply can't, no matter how expensive it may get.

The envelopes from the NFL informing the Pittsburgh Steelers running back he's being fined for the sometimes brutal way he goes about his job have arrived at Warren's locker with alarming regularity since he practically willed his way onto the 53-man roster at the start of the 2022 season as an undrafted rookie free agent.

Against the Browns in September, he got dinged for lowering his helmet while finishing off a run. Against Los Angeles in October, the NFL ruled the 5-foot-8 Warren lowered his head to initiate contact with 6-4 Rams defensive lineman Michal Hoecht, costing Warren nearly $50,000 and leaving him at a loss at how exactly he's supposed to block someone bigger and taller, which would be just about everyone.

“I can’t stand my ground and punch them; they are going to run me over," Warren said earlier this season. "So I try to enforce my hitting. It’s getting to the point where it’s hurting me.”

Not that it is going to stop him. His willingness to deliver as much punishment as he absorbs as often as possible is one of the reasons he catapulted up the depth chart from obscure rookie to now — stunningly — NFL regular.

“I wouldn’t have made the team if I don’t play the way I play,” he said. “Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”

Warren's career trajectory reached a new high on Sunday when he was introduced as a co-starter alongside Najee Harris then ran for a career-best 101 yards and a touchdown in a 23-19 win over Green Bay.

While coach Mike Tomlin has said repeatedly for most of the past three years that Harris is Pittsburgh's “bell cow,” the reality is Warren's ability to be a difference-maker with startling frequency forced Tomlin's hand to the point where Tomlin went to Warren on Friday night and told him he'd run out onto the field as a co-starter with Harris.

Heady territory for a player who willfully makes it a point to not think about the big picture and how far he's come, instead focusing on whatever is directly in front of him. It's simpler that way.

“I put my best foot forward and whatever happens, happens,” Warren said.

And what happens far more often than not is Warren maximizing every stitch of his talent no matter what he's asked to do on a given play.

Sometimes it's dominating oncoming pass rushers, a job he willingly embraces. Sometimes it's getting a big gain on the ground. Sometimes it's circling out of the backfield to be quarterback Kenny Pickett's security blanket.

In the process, he's become 1B to Harris' 1A. Their stats through nine games for the Steelers (6-3) are nearly identical. Warren has 102 touches for 582 yards and two touchdowns, Harris 134 touches for 579 yards and three scores.

Their success also highlights the ongoing debate about the value of a running back in today's NFL. Harris is a 2021 first-round selection, while 262 picks came and went at the 2022 draft without Warren hearing his name called.

Fast forward 18ish months and Harris and Warren are now essentially equals in production, if not in perception. That's fine by Warren, who has been careful to point out that Harris is RB1.

“I motivate him, he motivates me and we just feed off each other and reciprocate each other’s energy,” Warren said.

Good thing, because the Steelers will need both of them if they want to keep pace in the ultra-competitive AFC North. Pittsburgh begins a critical stretch on Sunday when it visits Cleveland (6-3).

The Steelers will make the 142-mile trip with momentum and some semblance of an offensive identity after running for 166 yards against Tennessee and 205 against Green Bay, thanks in large part to Harris and his unexpected tag-team partner, an undersized player making an outsized impact.

“They're a good one-two punch,” center Mason Cole said. “We’re starting to see that kind of kick in here as the season goes on.”

WHAT'S WORKING

Forcing teams into mistakes in critical situations. The defense was pushed around at times against Green Bay but also picked off two passes in the final minutes, pushing the Steelers' turnover ratio to plus-10, tied with Cincinnati for tops in the league.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The kick coverage units didn't exactly shine while giving up 151 return yards against the Packers. Given Pittsburgh's thin margin for error, lapses on special teams could be costly.

STOCK UP

Patrick Peterson. The eight-time Pro Bowl defensive back changed the trajectory of the game by blocking an Anders Carlson extra point in the second quarter. The 33-year-old later expertly tipped a pass into the hands of teammate Keanu Neal to thwart Green Bay's penultimate drive.

STOCK DOWN

Quarterback Kenny Pickett wasn’t asked to do much with the running game humming, and a late scramble helped drain the clock. Still, going 14 for 23 for 126 yards without a touchdown isn’t going to be enough most Sundays going forward no matter how well he protects the ball. (He’s thrown just one pick since Week 2).

INJURIES

LB Kwon Alexander's season is over after sustaining a serious left leg injury. There is optimism All-Pro S Minkah Fitzpatrick and TE Pat Freiermuth's respective hamstring injuries are nearly healed.

KEY NUMBER

21-7-1: Pittsburgh's record in one-score games since the start of the 2021 season. That includes a 7-2 mark against AFC North opponents Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore, whom the Steelers face a combined four times over the final eight weeks.

NEXT STEPS

Go for a season sweep of the Browns on the road on Sunday.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl