Much to the great pleasure of Penn State fans, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Jesse James made his NFL debut on Sunday, garnering positive reviews. Much has been written about his debut, the highlight of which was his first career touchdown pass, including by us, but below, you will understand why there is encouragement surrounding his performance.
The former fifth-round draft pick’s first notable play game on the first snap of the Steelers’ second drive, which was also his first career catch, a nine-yard gain off a chip-and-release before sitting down over the middle. You can see by his body language that he was a bit anxious, but he handled it well and settled down quickly after that.
James came off the field for a play, but was back on after a successful short-yardage conversion, this time staying in and drawing a pass-blocking assignment. In fact, the blocking scheme left him on his own against Aldon Smith, faring well, though it was designed to be on the back side of a quick-release pass.
A bit later, early in the second quarter, the Steelers spread the field with five targets, both James and Heath Miller tucked into the slot. The play called for a short pass over the middle to Antonio Brown, but James showed good hustle and awareness to throw a downfield block.
He did have a negative play here and there, as on first and 10 from the Steelers’ own two-yard line. James was left to block on the edge, but in part because of the interfering penetration of the defensive lineman, was unable to sustain the block, and his outside linebacker was able to make the tackle after a two-yard gain.
James was one of four key blockers on the edge of the play on the 53-yard run at the end of the third quarter, including Miller, the pulling guard, and the fullback. James aligned inside of Miller on the left side of the formation, helping to secure the outside linebacker to the inside of the field with a reach block, aided by a chip from his paired tight end.
On the next play, the first of the fourth quarter, the Steelers ran out of the 22 personnel with James inside of Miller on the left side, lined across from Smith. The outside linebacker charged hard on the rookie, but he squared up, and ultimately stabilized after initially losing his footing, to maintain the block, showing encouraging strength.
Of course, the rookie’s most talked about play may have actually been Ben Roethlisberger’s second touchdown pass, a 14-yarder on a screen pass to Martavis Bryant. In spite of the fact that the Steelers basically telegraphed the screen, bunching Bryant behind James outside the numbers, the tight end very impressively turned his man and opened up the sideline for the wide receiver.
After Bryant made the first defender miss, James very consciously worked his block into the path of a second defender. Bryant made the fourth and final defender miss en route to a very necessary score.
Perhaps in part because of his good work on the previous play, after the Steelers recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, Roethlisberger went back the James in the passing game on second and goal from the four, running a skinny post out of a combo route with Miller for the wide open score, which he secured with anticipation, yet confidence.
All in all, you couldn’t ask much more from James than he gave in his NFL debut, given where he was expected to be at this point in his development. And he will get another crack at it tomorrow, with Matt Spaeth ruled out again.