It’s probably a sign that you’re doing a good job when a Pro Bowl cornerback wants to go up against you during your rookie training camp. That is what happened to Pittsburgh Steelers second-round wide receiver James Washington before he finally got the opportunity to get some higher-quality reps and work against two-time Pro Bowler Joe Haden.
“Once I see him making plays on other guys, it’s like ’let me see what you can do’”, he told Will Grave recently for the Associated Press. “In Latrobe he got me in the end zone. Jumped up and got his hands on the ball the whole time and I couldn’t get it. So he’s just making really good plays. I was like, ‘if you can make that on me, I think you’re going to be good’”.
Haden, signed last year in late August when he was a surprise cut by the Cleveland Browns, has seen an awful lot of wide receivers over the years and gotten the better of most of them. seven-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green called him one of the toughest players he has ever gone up against.
And Washington got him. As he did so many other cornerbacks in Latrobe. And then in Green Bay. He plucked the ball away from two defensive backs for scores in the Steelers’ loss to the Packers last week, arguably the two single most impressive plays any Pittsburgh player has made so far this preseason.
The Oklahoma State product has roughly average height for his position, and average speed, but he knows how to maximize both, and has the size to consistently win in contested catch situations, which is what is proving to make him so difficult to cover, both for his teammates and the opposition.
Haden said that Washington “never said anything” after he got the better of the veteran in training camp. “I’ve been around a lot of rookies that don’t act like that and aren’t as good” as the humble second-round pick has shown himself to be so far.
While there is a great deal of optimism for a bright future ahead, however, he knows as well as anybody that there are still a lot of kinks to work out, especially now that he is (finally) taking most of his reps in practice working with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the first-team offense.
“With Ben, you have to know the defense”, he told Graves. “You have to be watching while running your routes. With me and [Mason Rudolph] you know, we’re taught, ‘play the ball is supposed to go here, it’s supposed to go here’. With Ben, he’s a Hall of Famer. He knows spots where he can sneak it in and throw you a back shoulder. You have to be ready with him”.
Multiple beat writers have observed that in their early practices together, Roethlisberger has seemed to be testing the rookie, surprising him with the ball placement, feeling him out and showing him what he needs to be prepared for. The veteran has been slow to warm up to rookies in the past, expecting them to earn his trust on the field before showering them with the unending accolades he gives to his veteran teammates.