We aren’t done talking about James Washington yet. After hearing mostly vague answers from Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada yesterday about Washington’s limited snap count Sunday against Seattle, wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard gave an honest and detailed explanation of why Washington played just eight snaps in Week 6.
That comes via ESPN’s Brooke Pryor, who sent out this tweet a short time ago. Hilliard took the blame for the wide receiver rotation.
Asked Ike Hilliard how much of an asset James Washington can be in the passing game, and he was incredibly expansive on what led to Washington's limited reps Sunday.
Injuries and their recoveries in the position group were a significant factor to the division of labor. pic.twitter.com/R4mjEMNQk9
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) October 20, 2021
“We have two men coming off of injury,” Hilliard said according to Pryor’s tweet. “Ray Ray is JuJu’s primary backup. I was really, really comfortable with Cody [White] backing him up at the F Spot. So, the initial idea was to trade basically a series or two with each guy at the Z position. Meaning Chase and James, and Chase’s hamstring help up better than I expected. With James having limited reps during the week at the F, limited practice time, period. It was a little safer for me mentally in a game situation to stick with Chase and let him go at the Z and not throw James to the wolves at the F spot and Ray Ray handled it relatively well.”
First, some definitions. The “Z” spot is the outside, playside wide receiver, Claypool and Washington’s primary spot. It’s traditionally the home run hitter in the Steelers’ offense, the role Mike Wallace played so well for many years in Pittsburgh. The “F” spot is what the Steelers call the slot receiver position, a term they’ve had for many years (former Steelers’ WR Demarcus Ayers references it in an interview I did with him last year).
According to Hilliard, the plan was for Washington and Claypool to rotate in at the Z position throughout the game. But Claypool’s hamstring wasn’t the issue the team feared it might be, making a rotation less necessary. And because Washington had limited practice reps and even fewer in the slot, Hilliard and the team decided to lean on Ray-Ray McCloud, who soaked up the vast majority of those slot snaps.
As Pryor’s tweet notes, Hilliard – who like most positional coaches, has heavy control over player substitutions – vowed to do better going forward. And that means giving Washington more chances in the slot.
“James will have a better opportunity to get more reps during practice at the F spot and you’ll see a cleaner rotation with all four or five guys playing. We’ll do a better job going forward.”
Washington isn’t a natural slot receiver but the team is a lot less static in its receiver positions and alignments in the post-Antonio Brown world. The team has mixed and matched much more since 2019. It is curious why Claypool isn’t getting more looks in the slot with Washington on the outside, that configuration would seem to suit both players well, but the team seems to prefer Claypool on the outside for his big-play ability (on paper, anyway).
With JuJu Smtih-Schuster out for the season, we’ll certainly have a close eye on the wide receiver snap count and alignment going forward.