Were it not for the quarterback that he’s playing with, it would be fair to say that James Washington would probably be the story of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense right now. He has been the team’s number one receiver in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s absence the past two weeks, and he has put up over 200 yards with two scores during that span.
Because most of that success came off of the arm of Devlin Hodges, Duck has been getting most of the attention, but Washington’s development—which began well before this two-game period, mind you—has been crucial for the rookie quarterback as well.
As he continued to make plays, including vertical hauls, noted by his averaging 19.3 yards per reception on the season, he’ll be counted on more and more, even when Smith-Schuster returns, which doesn’t sound like it will be this week.
“He’s a second-year player, and you hope to see those kind of jumps”, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said of the 60th-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, via a transcript from the team’s media department.” I think everyone has high expectations for everyone that plays, and when you have to play young, you’re going to make some mistakes”.
He went on to say that the mistakes of a high draft pick tend to get magnified a lot more than they should be, especially obviously if it’s a player who is asked to serve in a prominent role. Had Washington been a mid-round draft pick, so much attention wouldn’t have been paid to the fact that his career had gotten off to a slow start.
“I think you’re witnessing a guy that played last year, took advantage of at least the reps he got from an experience standpoint, and then at the end of the season said, “you know what? I’m better than this, and I want play, and I want to make it’”, Fichtner went on.
“I think he worked his tail off. I know he came back to training camp at the appropriate weight we all thought was appropriate for him, and he’s been just a pleasant, pleasant worker moving forward”, he added. “I mean, he’s been great. He’s been a leader as well. He’s had to. Now look around him, he’s played more football than most of the guys there playing with him. So he’s jumped into that role while JuJu’s been down. So that’s been really pleasing”.
Looking around the wide receiver room, it’s pretty stark. With Smith-Schuster sidelined, the number two receiver is Diontae Johnson. Tevin Jones is currently in the number three role. He has been on the roster for three weeks after being called up from the practice squad. Deon Cain, recently signed off the Chicago Bears’ practice squad, is a second-year player who spent his rookie season on the Reserve/Injured List. Johnny Holton is the most veteran player and his offensive role has largely been eliminated.
It’s hard to be a leader without either experience or success. Washing is starting to pick up both now along the way, and just as the Steelers have needed him to. The question is, can he continue to do what he has been doing in recent weeks, and even continue to round out his game to put more polish on his route tree?