ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Through four weeks, there's been little separation between two of the top rookie running backs.
Pittsburgh's Najee Harris and Denver's Javonte Williams were selected just 11 picks apart in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the margin between the two has grown smaller in the opening weeks of the season.
Harris, whom Pittsburgh selected with the 24th-overall pick, has carried the ball 55 times for 185 yards and a touchdown.
Williams, chosen when the Broncos traded up to take him at No. 35, has more than held his own, carrying the ball 46 times for 186 yards and a touchdown.
The Broncos' running back leads all rookies in rushing yards, and his 4.04 yards per carry ranks sixth among rookies with at least 15 carries.
Harris, who has started all four of the Steelers' game, holds the edge in total yards, as he's also caught 26 passes for 178 yards and a score. Williams has eight catches for 50 yards through his first four games.
The two players never competed in college, but they're currently locked in a battle for the rookie rushing title. And as the Broncos prepare to visit the Steelers, it's clear each team's coach respects the other's young running back.
"Thought very highly of him," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday. "We looked at all of what I would describe as 'A runners,' and obviously Williams was and is one of those."
Head Coach Vic Fangio, meanwhile, knows the challenge that Harris will present the Broncos.
"He played really good at Alabama, and he's playing really good for Pittsburgh," Fangio said Wednesday. "Obviously, he's got really good size, good speed, runs hard. He's got some shiftiness for a big guy. He's caught a lot of balls for them. He's caught 26 balls in the first four games. He does a good job in pass blocking. He's a complete back, and we knew that. They got a good player."
Clemson's Travis Etienne went off the board one pick after Harris, and Fangio and General Manager George Paton knew Williams wouldn't fall to them at the 40th-overall pick.
"We knew if we waited, he wouldn't have been there, and he's proven us right," Fangio said Monday. "He's a really good back and we've been very pleased with his play."
The rookie running back's best play of the season came early in Denver's game against the Ravens, as he broke several tackles and carried cornerback Marlon Humphrey nearly 20 yards on his back en route to a 31-yard gain.
"Luckily, I haven't had to tackle the guy," Shelby Harris said Wednesday. "That was a good-[expletive] run. I remember watching on the sidelines. [There's] not much you can say about that. It's crazy because you rarely see runs like that, but when the whole team is trying to take you down and go 30 yards on them, that's something special. Hopefully we'll get more of that."
Harris also noted that he's glad he wasn't the one in Williams' way on Sunday.
"Hell yeah," Harris said. "It's a load to take down any of our backs, but especially one that's going to keep churning his legs like that. You don't want to be part of that, and you don't want any part of that."
Harris knows taking down the Steelers' running back won't be any easier.
"We just have to swarm to the ball since he is so active in the pass game," Harris said. "With all the checkdowns, he's a good back and he's a good receiving back. He can make a lot of people miss. He can run through you, and he can run by you. He's a good back, so it's all about swarming to the ball every week and making sure that if he misses one tackle, he doesn't miss two and go for 30 [yards]. It's a group and team effort."
The battle for the rookie rushing title will take place over the rest of the season, and it's still far too early to declare a winner. On Sunday in Pittsburgh, though, Williams could earn a head-to-head win.
As the Broncos returned to practice on Wednesday, safety Justin Simmons said he believed the team had the correct makeup to respond in Pittsburgh — and he expected to see the signs during practice.
"We have no choice," Simmons said. "We have to respond to this game on Sunday. If we want to continue playing good football — obviously Sunday's game was what it was all around. It just wasn't a great game for us — but if we want to continue to keep playing great football, like you said, you have to respond. It's not the loss this past Sunday that defines you as a football team, it's how you respond to a loss that defines you as a good football team. Practice this week has to be more amped than it's been in weeks prior, and then it can't just stop there right. It has to carry over to a tough environment going into Pittsburgh and finding a way to win on Sunday."
Simmons, a team captain, said he'll be among the players to push for that increased intensity in practice during the week.
"It's definitely going to require a lot more effort on some of the leaders on the team and making sure that we're doing everything we can to push this team to getting a win on Sunday," Simmons said.
THE SPOON THAT STIRS THE DRINK
The Broncos didn't have many splash plays on offense against the Ravens, recording just two plays of more than 20 yards. Only one of those plays — Williams' 31-yard run — came before the waning moments of the game. Wide receiver Courtland Sutton, whose 32-yard catch was the Broncos' longest play of the afternoon, said he feels the need to make bigger plays when the offense can't find its footing.
"I feel that pressure a lot," Sutton said. "All week we hear that whatever the strength of that [team] is, the other side of the ball kind of gets challenged that week. If they have a really good defensive line, then the offensive line gets challenged. [If they have] a really good secondary, then the receivers get challenged. We look at it as an opportunity when we get challenged. We want to go out and make plays. That's kind of our M.O.
"… I use the term 'being the spoon.' When you make some chocolate milk, you have regular milk and you put the chocolate in there. You have to have the spoon and stir it up. I always use that term of being the spoon. I look at myself as a guy who wants to go out there and be the spoon and go out there and make a big play to get the offense going and get some juice going. I know the rest of my guys in my room and the rest of the offensive guys all look at that. If there's a lull, everybody's like, 'Let's get that one play to get us going and get the momentum rolling so that we can have the success that we want.'"