I think one of the things that will be most interesting to see when the regular season begins for the Pittsburgh Steelers is how they use James Washington. Based on the preseason, it’s not immediately clear what his role will be, but there’s no doubt that he will play, if in a rotation.
JuJu Smith-Schuster and Donte Moncrief are earmarked as the starters, but during the preseason and through most of training camp, they rotated Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers in the slot, with Switzer obviously winning out.
So even though Washington was one of the big winners during the preseason even around the league, finishing with over 200 receiving yards and a couple of touchdowns, it remains to be seen just how and when he gets used. Not because the team has any lack of confidence in him. quarterback Ben Roethlisberger once again talked him up yesterday heading into the opener. Via the team’s website:
Everybody saw as soon as he walked in how much better shape he looked [to be] in. Not better shape, but thinner, lighter. He was already strong. It’s not like he was chubby. He lost weight. He looked good; he lost weight because he wanted to be faster, and I think we’ve all seen that. We’ve just seen him continue to grow in terms of understanding of the offense and making plays. He goes up and high-points balls and makes those contested catches. I think that’s all growth, that’s positive in everybody’s eyes.
While the Steelers got a chance to see all of those things in bits and flashes during the offseason a year ago, he has been doing it consistently this summer, putting in three consecutive strong preseason games before being limited in opportunity in the finale. He could have had another long catch in the finale, but Joshua Dobbs just barely overthrew him. That one he really did have to leave his feet to even try to catch, at which point it was contested.
Washington hasn’t been perfect. He couldn’t drag his foot for a touchdown in the opener on a pass from Dobbs. He ran the wrong route in the third game, which resulted in Mason Rudolph throwing an interception, tossing the ball to where his receiver should have been. In the finale, he missed a block that got his running back blown up in the backfield.
So no, he’s not a finished product yet, and he’s going to continue making mistakes, the way anybody else does. But the Steelers don’t need him to be a superstar. They can afford to allow him to advance at his own pace, whatever that might be, his performance dictating his playing time. they have enough depth to carry out that plan for the former second-round pick.