Between the numbers three to five wide receivers, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to net one reception for five yards, that being a third-and-four conversion by Justin Hunter, who functioned as the team’s primary number three on Sunday alongside Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
The team used three (or more) receivers in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns on 63 of their 85 offensive snaps. James Washington got 11 of them, mostly in the fourth quarter and overtime, but was not targeted. Ryan Switzer got eight, including two from the backfield, and was targeted once but dropped the pass.
Regardless of what Switzer does or does not offer on offense, we know that ultimately he is going to dress on Sundays. He is the team’s starting kick returner and punt returner, and he played well in both phases in his Steelers debut, so he’s not exactly under threat of being benched.
And we know that Darrius Heyward-Bey figures to continue to dress. He is a core member of all four coverage and return units, seemingly expanding his role even further than it was a year ago. This, in spite of the fact that the only snap he played on offense was as the ‘victory back’ on the kneeldown at the end of the fourth quarter.
So the question that the team is eventually going to have to answer, assuming that Vance McDonald ever gets healthy, is who is going to be the final inactive. The tight end’s injury allowed them to postpone that question, dressing both Hunter and Washington, but the latter’s 52 snaps clearly indicated who the number three was.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin said yesterday of the rookie Washington that “he’s just got to keep working”, calling it “a natural maturation process or development that all players go through”, though T.J. Watt and Terrell Edmunds were opening-day starters in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Smith-Schuster only played 22 snaps in the season opener a year ago and was not targeted. The following week, he evenly split reps with Eli Rogers, but he was also targeted four times, catching three passes, including a touchdown. He played 80 percent of the snaps the following week.
Is that the ‘natural maturation process’ that awaits Washington? Or will he possibly go from playing 11 snaps in the opener to being a gameday inactive on Sunday? He will dress for sure if McDonald is healthy (Joe Haden would be a lateral move for Coty Sensabaugh), and that will help him get opportunities in the meantime he might not otherwise.
A lot of things that went down in that season opener were just weird. Words like ‘surreal’ and ‘awkward’ were used to describe it by those who played in or coached it after the fact. This wasn’t necessarily weird or surreal, but it was a bit awkward.
The assumption was that Washington would start in the opener. Perhaps his oblique injury delayed his progression. We should know more about his potential participation on Sunday by the end of the week based on how the team uses him in practice.