By all accounts, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Jesse James had a debut performance to forget last Sunday during the Hall of Fame game. While bearing a heavy heart and clouded mind due to the very recent death of a close friend, his on-field performance suffered significantly, flagged for two penalties, dropping a touchdown pass, and allowing another pass to bounce off of his chest plate for an interception.
The former Penn State tight end had a much quieter day on Friday during the Steelers’ second preseason game, and I mean that in a positive way. The only time he drew attention to himself was for a game highlight, when he held on through a big hit on a key 22-yard reception on third and 10, following back-to-back drops by Steelers wide receivers.
James had two catches on the day for 28 yards, drew a defensive holding call on another target, and remained penalty-free in spite of a fairly heavy workload during the game.
In fact, he had a very solid all-around game, performing well both as a run blocker and a pass protector. While he is far from a finished product in that regard, and lacks the aggressiveness that comes with confidence and experience, he more than held his own against the Jaguars.
There were multiple occasions during the second half in which James helped to turn a defender out of a hole in order to open up a running lane. In pass protection, let’s just say that things were less adventurous with him in the game than when Ray Hamilton drew pass protection responsibilities.
On one play late in the game, James was quick to identifying a blitzing defensive back as he safely led him up the arc and out of the range of his quarterback. He was also solid both blocking individually and working with the offensive tackles.
Even on special teams, James registered a tackle as well as a downed punt. He also missed one tackle, although he did show that he could get down the field quick enough to have the first crack at making the tackle on that occasion.
It certainly seems as though James put that first game behind him and heeded the advice of his head coach to “knuckle up”. His consistent performance across the board in all areas of his game can only be taken as an encouraging sign for his development.
Not that he is about to overtake Matt Spaeth’s role in the offense, or even snap much playing time away from Will Johnson, for example. James still has work to do to round out his skill set before that can be a realistic consideration.
While there is not much of a sample size, it would seem that practice reports were validated in saying that James as of yet hasn’t shown a great sense of awareness of what to do with the ball after the catch. He also needs to gain a greater sense of control in his blocking performance. But at least he has wiped the slate clean from that awful first impression.