James Washington may have only had two receptions on the day—very nearly three if not for a very good defensive play by a top cornerback—but he made them count. The first was a 21-yard connection from Ben Roethlisberger on a deep pass during the two-minute offense just before halftime. The second ended that drive with a 13-yard score.
Lined up out wide, the Pittsburgh Steelers schemed Washington into the open field, coming inside and allowing him to get inside the five-yard line. The rest of the play, however, was on him, fighting two defenders inside the three-yard line to muscle his way into the end zone in impressive fashion.
“That’s a guy that’s got a nose for the end zone, and hopefully that can be reflective of all our guys”, head coach Mike Tomlin said of his third-year receiver in that moment. “But just in that moment, that’s a guy rising up and making a necessary play and doing that he has to do to deliver for his teammates. The strength of us is displayed in individual efforts like that one”.
Two receptions for 34 yards and yards and one touchdown isn’t necessarily a gaudy stat line, but the Steelers have a lot of players to distribute the ball to this year. Even JuJu Smith-Schuster ‘only’ got six targets on the night, though Diontae Johnson came away with 10, catching six of them.
Washington is never going to be a high-volume receptions player. Besides, they have Smith-Schuster and Johnson for that. But the has shown that he can step up and make the key plays. With one explosive play and one touchdown that required extra effort, he’s off to a good start.
And the one target that he couldn’t bring in nevertheless still speaks to his growth. He not only did a good job of getting open, but also of hunting the ball over his shoulder. He would have reeled it in had James Bradberry not been able to get his and in between Washington’s at the last moment to knock it away.
Three targets and all of them on-target. That’s a big deal for the chemistry between Roethlisberger and Washington, which had been severely lacking during their first 18 games together. While the receiver started to blossom last year when Roethlisberger was on injured reserve, it’s important to have that rhythm with your starting quarterback.
The willingness and ability to display that extra effort will not hurt his chances of getting more and more opportunities going forward, although considering the number of balls that need to go around to not just the other receivers, but also Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald and the running backs, some of these skill positions players are likely to have to swallow their pride and just make the plays when they come their way. It’s not easy to have three 1000-yard guys in one year.