PITTSBURGH — Life for a Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver can change quickly.
On Thursday, James Washington captivated with two strong-arm touchdowns over Green Bay Packers defenders on his way to 114 yards, teasing the potential for a big-play guy alongside Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. In a practice two days later, coaches pulled Washington aside to explain what Ben Roethlisberger wanted on a failed goal-line play, Washington recalled. The offense huddled for the next play without him.
“I’m not used to a quarterback throwing the ball in a window 1 foot wide,” said Washington about adjusting to Roethlisberger’s fast pace.
Roethlisberger isn’t afraid to tell young receivers to get out of the huddle from time to time if they aren’t ready, said veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who recognizes a skill that will keep Washington in it.
“The kid can catch,” said Hewyard-Bey, who enters his fifth season with the Steelers and his 10th NFL season overall. “I keep telling him, keep displaying that. Some people have that, some don’t. It’s a hard thing to learn. But he has a big range, and hopefully he can do that on Sunday.”
Washington, a second-round pick in April, has made contested catches all preseason, which accentuates the Steelers’ penchant for selecting impact wideouts each spring.
The Steelers set a lofty standard for versatile playmaking in 2010 after turning a third-round pick and a sixth-round flier into Emmanuel Sanders and Brown. From 2011 to 2017, three of their four receivers drafted in the first four rounds produced at least one 50-catch season. Martavis Bryant and Smith-Schuster have flashed superstar qualities. Sammie Coates is the only player resembling a bust, and he produced more than 20 yards per catch in his second season.
• Rodgers on Packers: This is a partnership
• Don’t count out Peterman in Bills’ QB race
• Redskins WR threw no-hitter at LLWS
• Why Cowboys’ pass-rush drill ignites camp
• Barber is Bucs’ clear No. 1 RB for now
Now there’s Washington, who’s moved to second string on the depth chart and is trending toward a No. 3 receiver role for opening day. Washington isn’t sure why Pittsburgh drafted him but knows “the Steelers, they make good choices, I can say that for sure.”
Heyward-Bey can tell the rookie why he’s here: You might be unproven at the NFL level, but you fit Pittsburgh’s physical, versatile mold.
“They are just looking for a guy who competes. I don’t really think they care about measurables,” Heyward-Bey said. “A guy who can go out here and compete and play football. It has an atmosphere of going out and doing well on Sundays. A room full of guys who can play — you better bring it.”
The Steelers require their receivers to play all three primary spots along the formation. Smith-Schuster shined as a physical slot receiver who could stretch defenses vertically on his way to 917 yards as a rookie. Bryant, traded to Oakland in April after growing discontent with his role in the offense behind Brown and Le’Veon Bell, was a true deep threat who often ran screens and reverses.
Since rookie minicamp in May, Washington has done just about everything. He’s lined up in the slot, gone deep and caught practice passes from four different quarterbacks, including college teammate Mason Rudolph.
His head’s spinning a bit, but that’s the point.
“Knowing the entire concept of the play, from X all the way to Z. You’ve got to know what everybody’s doing,” Washington said. “I’ve been moving around quite a bit. It’s been putting stress on me at night and before practice. I’ll be in my playbook and learning stuff. Just meet with the quarterbacks, get with them and develop study habits.”
Roethlisberger “runs the train” for all receivers, Heyward-Bey said. Develop chemistry with him and you’ve got a chance. That’s Washington’s next step, and they’ve appeared on the wrong page on multiple goal-line drills.
But the Steelers like his chances because of the way he competes.
For example, the Steelers liked that Washington ran the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day and his combine, showing nothing to hide despite his 4.54-second official time. The Steelers believe his game speed is faster than that, as evidenced with a 54-yard catch Thursday when he blew past a Packers defender and had to come back for the deep ball.
“We’ve had fast guys in the past and count how many times they’ve gotten open deep,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “There’s a lot of ways to do that: one by strength, one by technique and one by willingness and conditioning. [Washington’s] that kind of guy, and you can’t deny what he’s done in college [at Oklahoma State]. … This guy comes in with several tricks.”
Early in the season as Washington adjusts, the Steelers could opt for veterans Heyward-Bey or Justin Hunter to run in the three-receiver sets alongside Brown and Smith-Schuster.
But Washington has made the contested catch look routine enough that using him in the red zone seems a given.
“He didn’t do anything in this stadium that we hadn’t seen on the practice fields of Latrobe, so that’s a good sign,” coach Mike Tomlin said after Thursday’s game.