Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end Jesse James was warned by his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, following his first game day helmet four games ago that he better not give him a reason to sit him again. So far he hasn’t.
After spending the first eight games on the inactive list, James has played in the last four, first getting his opportunity due to an injury to Matt Spaeth. He started one game that Spaeth missed when the Steelers opened in a two tight end set. He did so again on Sunday with Heath Miller out.
His role in the offense with Miller out rather than Spaeth was a bit different, as he, rather than Spaeth assumed more of the responsibilities that the former Pro Bowler would typically have. He received a handful of targets in the game and spent several counter run plays as a lead pulling blocker.
Haley talked about the young rookie’s growth since the start of the preseason yesterday and how far he has come since then, reiterating what he said last week that his biggest area of improvement has been his physical conditioning, having dropped some weight.
“He’s increased his speed and quickness” Haley said, also complimenting his “overall ability to run a bunch of reps, whether it’s in practice or in games”. The rookie played nearly every snap against the Colts 67 in total, while being held off of special teams duties.
The former Penn State tight end posted career bests of three receptions for 30 yards, with a long of 20 yards, in Sunday night’s victory, and was the recipient of a couple of more targets that were uncatchable. It was enough for Haley to see the strides that he has made.
“He made a couple of good plays in the middle of the field”, he said, “especially the one on the basic cross, where he had to extend to catch the ball. That’s not a play everybody makes or can make”.
Haley also mentioned to reporters that tight ends coach James Daniel is “pushing” James, “accelerating his learning process, growth and development”. With both Miller and Spaeth showing signs of wear and tear this year, it’s become only more important to make sure the rookie is up to speed as soon as possible.
Of course, his first game in the ‘Miller’ role, so to speak, wasn’t necessarily a smashing success. He has his issues on the blocking end of the spectrum at times, some of which resulted in negative plays, others seeing him get put on his back, caught off guard by a defender after getting out of position.
Obviously there were also a fair share of positive plays to go along with that, as he helped contribute to another successful night of running the football, with DeAngelo Williams rushing for 134 yards on 26 carries. The fact that James is playing and contributing positively at all, really, is a plus for his rookie season, in my estimation. The toughness that he has shown to be capable of after the catch is an added bonus.