When Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Jesse James had a night to forget during the Hall of Fame game to start the team’s preseason slate, it seemed to immediately ignite fears that he may not even be good enough to make the roster.
While some of those fears were allayed by the post-game revelation that the young man was at the time dealing with the emotions that coincide with the loss of a close friend just days earlier, the truth is that it was far too early to begin to worry anyway.
James showed why in the Steelers’ second preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, during which he had his moments in all facets of his game—run blocking, pass protection, receiving, and special teams.
And he will, naturally, be a contributor on special teams if he is to get a helmet on Sundays. On the night, he registered one special teams tackle and downed a punt, though he also had a somewhat difficult missed tackle on a return in which he was the first player down the field.
But of course, it is his offensive work that remains most intriguing, even if his playing time, behind two long-time veterans, will certainly be limited this season, barring injury. And one of his first plays that stood out to me was one that was bad for the team all around. On a play that went for a six-yard loss, James took on a defensive end on the play-side edge largely on his own and more than held his ground.
That is at least how I initially interpreted the outcome. Upon further review, however, and made obvious to James after the fact by left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, the rookie tight end was supposed to peel off that block and work to the next man, who was in on the tackle. That play set up second and 16, though James did manage to draw a defensive holding call on third down to move the chains.
Most of James’ work came in the fourth quarter, however, with the tight end being asked to do a lot of pass protection. On an early deep pass, he was tasked with blocking a defensive end on his own, getting a good first punch and ultimately withstanding the bull rush counter long enough for the pass to get off. You will remember that it was his ability to take on defensive ends that attracted the Steelers to him during the draft.
Later in the quarter, on the next drive, James began the work of redeeming himself as a pass catcher, hauling in a 22-yard pass on third and 10, following two dropped passes on the preceding plays by his wide receiver teammates. He hung on through hard contact with the safety coming in like a missile.
Shortly after that, on the same drive, James was working on the left side in the running game. with Villanueva crashing inside to clear his portion of the C gap, James did his part, turning the end out of the hole, with the pair opening a comfortable running lane for Jawon Chisholm.
As an added bonus, James finished off his night by picking up a blitzing defensive back and safely walking him up the arc in pass protection. He certainly had a much better game the second time out, though obviously there is still much work to be done.