With no opportune way to dress all six wide receivers yesterday, the Pittsburgh Steelers elected to dress only five, and among the actives was rookie second-round pick James Washington. Despite being outsnapped by Justin Hunter by a 5-to-1 margin in the season opener, it was Washington who served as the Steelers’ number three receiver in the offense yesterday.
And, just like JuJu Smith-Schuster a year ago, after not being targeted at all in his first game, his first (official) catch of his career went into the end zone. Smith-Schuster’s came on a shovel pass. Washington’s came on a scramble on which Ben Roethlisberger found him from 14 yards out.
While that was his only catch of the game (he had two receptions prior to that, which were negated by penalty and thus was wiped out of the record as though they never occurred), it should be the first of many. Smith-Schuster caught three passes for 13 yards and a touchdown in his second game.
He also had a highlight block in that game against Minnesota Vikings All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. So Washington had to comply with a block of his own. Late in the second quarter, on a 32-yard reception from Jesse James off a scramble drill, the rookie came downfield from running a go route to decleat a defender who had the angle on his tight end. It only netted perhaps a couple of extra yards at most, but it’s the effort that counts.
Washington is also just the latest Steelers receiver to make his first catch count. As mentioned, Smith-Schuster’s first catch a year ago was a touchdown. So was Martavis Bryant’s in 2014. Derek Moye caught two passes in his career, the first of which was a one-yard touchdown. Even Antonio Brown’s first touch (a kick return) went for a score.
He was a player who turned a lot of heads in training camp with his ability to make catches in contested situations, and was able to take that into the preseason, making two touchdown grabs in the second game over defenders to show that he can translate what he did on the practice field inside a stadium.
After suffering an oblique injury in the third game, however, he missed a lot of valuable practice time, which no doubt played a big role in his being limited in the offensive gameplan a week ago. It seems the Steelers are at a point now in which they are comfortable in using him, which means that Hunter will probably go back to being a perennial member of the inactive list.
Part of the reason for that is because Ryan Switzer and Darrius Heyward-Bey both showed that they can still be valuable members of the offense, with the former getting some touches and the latter showing that his blocking is still the best among the wide receiver group, featuring on a couple of key plays.
Washington’s workload and impact will only continue to rise from here on out, of course. He should see about two thirds of the team’s snaps and more targets will begin to be distributed in his direction. He was officially targeted five times in all, mostly on deep passes, which were off the mark.