The Pittsburgh Steelers promoted wide receiver Johnny Holton from their practice squad on Saturday and while that transaction wasn’t a jaw-dropping one in the grand scheme of all things related to special teams, the fact that he was the recipient of the first deep pass in Sunday night’s game against the New England Patriots was a bit of a surprise. After all, Steelers second-year wide receiver James Washington would’ve been the odds-on bet to get the first deep pass attempt Sunday night against the Patriots and many would’ve bet that Holton wouldn’t have played a single offensive snap in that contest barring any injuries to the other five wide receivers.
While Washington did technically start the Sunday night game against the Patriots, it was Holton who was on the field instead of him for the first third-down play run by the Steelers offense with 8:07 left in the first quarter. That play, a deep pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Holton down the right sideline, fell incomplete as a result of not only nice coverage, but the football being under-thrown a bit as well.
After that early third-down play, Holton went on to play just six more offensive snaps the remainder of the game while Washington ended the night having played 35 of the 67 total for the game. On Tuesday, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked during his weekly press conference if there was something matchup related or otherwise, they kept Washington out of so much of the game against the Patriots.
“I didn’t view a lack of participation for James Washington in the game,” Tomlin said. “I thought we played him a significant amount. He’s a young guy, he’ll continue to carve out a role for himself.”
In case you’re curious, by my count, the Steelers used 11 personnel on 44 plays Sunday night against the Patriots and Washington was in on 17 of those as one of the three wide receivers. However, fellow wide receiver Ryan Switzer was in on 29 of those 44 plays, seven of which Washington was on for. The six plays that Holton was on the field for Sunday night were also 11 personnel grouping plays and neither Washington nor Switzer were on the field for any of those six.
After being targeted just once in the first half of the Sunday night game, a deep incompletion down the right side, Washington’s second target of the game from Roethlisberger, also a deep pass down the right side of the field early in the second half, found its mark and resulted in a gain of 45 yards. Of the other four targets that Washington received from that catch forward resulted two incompletions, an interception in the end zone and a catch for 6 yards on the third to the last play of the game.
While Switzer did catch all six of the passes thrown his way Sunday night, they gained a total of 29 yards with the longest gain being 8 yards. 17 of Switzer’s 29 yards came after the catch and his average depth of target on those six passes was a mere 2-yards past the original line of scrimmage.
Washington had a great preseason again this year that included him catching four passes more than 40 yards down the field. While Washington’s total snap count of 35 Sunday night should necessarily stick out that much on the stat sheet, the fact that he could have been used a lot more in 11 personal groupings in place of Switzer does.
Will Washington begin seeing more playing time than Switzer moving forward? That indeed certainly should be the case. Additionally, if veteran wide receiver Donte Moncrief has a few more games like he had Sunday night against the Patriots, he should start losing a lot of his offensive snaps to rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson.