It’s an obvious statement but one worth repeating. The Pittsburgh Steelers will need several players to step up if they want to carry over the offensive success they enjoyed last year. Nearly a top five offense in points per game. Historically efficient red zone production. And a team capable of putting up video game numbers every week.
While not impossible, it’ll be much tougher to do the same in 2019. If they do, it’ll be in part thanks to young guys like James Washington and Jaylen Samuels stepping up. In an interview with Steelers.com’s Missi Matthews, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner talked at length about those two players and the role they’ll need to play throughout their sophomore seasons.
“Generally, as a rule, that second year player, that’s their biggest opportunity for growth,” he told Matthews. “And it just naturally happens. You’ve seen James’ body has changed already. Jaylen’s body has changed already. They’ve committed themselves to year-round training. The professionalism has caught on. They understand, they know the environment they’re in.”
Washington recently told reporters he dropped 15 pounds over the winter, attributing that to working on his dad’s farm back in Texas. He’s now around 210 pounds, allowing him to play faster and better conditioned. Pittsburgh is counting on him to be the team’s Z receiver and vertical threat after a highly disappointing rookie year. If Washington plays well, it’ll allow the team to keep JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot where he functions best on the field.
Samuels talked through the offseason of coming in slimmer, quicker, and recently told reporters after being in much better condition. Not only will that help him as a runner but it should improve what he can do in the passing game, showing more burst at the top of his routes to create separation while being a bigger threat after the catch. He’ll see an increased role heading into camp as the clear #2 after functioning as the third string back for the first half of his rookie campaign.
Fichtner knows it’s important to get the most out of both players this year.
“So you would expect they would obviously improve and we would hope for the maximum type of improvement with them.”
It’s a jump fans have seen in recent years. While Smith-Schuster had an excellent rookie season, his game took another step last year. He became a better route runner, much more competent on the outside, and rivaled Antonio Brown’s numbers. James Conner took advantage of his opportunity, starting the year on a great note before a high ankle sprain slowed him down. And the light came on for T.J. Watt, playing his best football over the final six weeks and ending the year with 13 sacks.
Maybe Washington and Samuels don’t have to be quite that productive. But if Washington can create big plays on a semi-regular basis and Samuels serve as the ultimate chess piece, the Steelers as a unit will overcome the singular elite players they lost this offseason.