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Outlaw Suddenly Becoming ‘Big Play’ Jesse James

With a number of departures in the secondary this offseason, there was a chain reaction of jersey switches that took place in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. Mike Mitchell getting cut freed up the no. 23 jersey previously worn by Joe Haden, who took the number 21 when he signs with Pittsburgh.

That allowed the 21 jersey to become available, coveted by Sean Davis, who idolized Sean Taylor. He took that number, freeing up his no. 28 jersey for Mike Hilton to take, which allowed Nat Berhe to keep his no. 31. The release of William Gay also allowed running back Stevan Ridley to go from 38 to 22, his familiar number.

With Gay’s number being freed up, his nickname also apparently became available, and Jesse James, of all people, is making a run at it. ‘Big Play’ Jesse James is no longer the Outlaw after recording four explosive receiving plays in yesterday’s loss.

To put that into context, James recorded 90 receptions over the course of his first three seasons in the NFL. As indicated by his career 8.5 yards per catch, only four of those receptions went for 20 or more yards, or in other words, an explosive play.

He matched his three-year total in one game. And if you add that to the explosive reception that he had in the season opener a week ago, he now has five on the season, more than doubling his career total in explosive plays in just two weeks. His previous high in a single season was two in 2016.

In fact, James caught five passes on the day for 138 yards, by far a career high. He did have 97 yards late last year against the Baltimore Ravens, but outside of that had never had more than the 60 receiving yards that he had a week ago, so he has posted two of his highest yardage outputs in the first two weeks of the season.

Through two games, James has eight receptions for 198 yards and a touchdown, averaging a mindboggling 25 yards per reception, rounded up. That is nearly three times as much as his career yards per catch figure entering this season.

So why the sudden explosion? Well, it’s certainly not because he has been working diligently with a speed coach. It’s because he has built a great rapport with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as those big plays have come largely on scramble drills, on which he knows what Roethlisberger wants him to do.

He has on multiple occasions been able to get upfield as Roethlisberger rolls to his side of the field, making himself available down the field for his quarterback for big gains. This happened too scarcely previous in his career, but that chemistry has been evident early on this year.

And that will only fuel his confidence. Even with Vance McDonald back in action, he is easily making the case to keep himself involved in the offense, especially with a number three wide receiver yet to clearly emerge, opening the door for more usage of two-receiver sets in passing opportunities.

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