With the 2022 new league year, the questions will be plenty for quite a while, even as the Pittsburgh Steelers spend cash and cap space and use draft picks in an effort to find answers. We don’t know who the quarterback is going to be yet—even if we have a good idea. How will the offensive line be formulated? How will the secondary develop amid changes, including to the coaching staff? What does Teryl Austin bring to the table—and Brian Flores? What will Matt Canada’s offense look like absent Ben Roethlisberger?
These sorts of uncertainties are what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
Topic Statement: James Washington was underutilized during his final two seasons in Pittsburgh (or at least his final season).
Explanation: A former 60th overall draft selection, James Washington logged under 500 snaps in each of his final two seasons with the Steelers, playing in 16 games in 2020 and 15 in 2021. His snap percentage dropped from 54 as a rookie to 47 last year, with a high of 68 in 2018.
Washington caught just 24 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns last season. There is no good argument to justify that relative pittance in terms of production in a year in which he was healthy enough to play 15 games and JuJu Smith-Schuster only played in five games.
The fact that the Steelers couldn’t, or were unwilling to, devise a way to give him more snaps between Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, instead giving the bulk of that work to Ray-Ray McCloud, is a testament to the fact that he was not properly utilized, both by simply not giving him enough opportunities and also pigeon-holing him as a one-dimensional player.
And the greatest flaw in their strategy is that the one dimension they trusted him in, the deep ball, was something that the Steelers offense hasn’t been able to reliably execute for most of Washington’s career. Ben Roethlisberger’s deep ball accuracy—in terms of the accuracy of the throw, not talking about catch percentage—is in the lower third of the league. No wonder he can’t produce when you can’t get him the ball in the role you ask him to play, while not allowing him to play any others.
While it is fair to note that the Steelers were not a good deep-ball passing team in recent years relative only to the quarterback play, it also should be pointed out that Washington did not consistently get open. He lacks elite speed, and he hasn’t been able to as aggressively use his physicality to create separation as he did in college.
The Steelers have tried to use Washington some more in the slot, which would have been the simplest way of getting him more snaps after Smith-Schuster was injured, but it’s not something he was overly adapted to.
It’s a tough pill to swallow that McCloud played so much while Washington was on the bench, but the reality is that he was a backup outside receiver. He played when Johnson and Claypool went down. He did make his plays here and there, and when he did, everybody screamed that he needs to be on the field. But it’s easy to forget the rest of the story.