Jesse James gets start at tight end for Steelers, proves his worth with pair of touchdown receptions
CLEVELAND — Over the past two weeks, Steelers tight end Jesse James remained respectful and a team-first guy while simultaneously remaining confident in his place with the offense despite criticism from his head coach.
When the Steelers acquired Vance McDonald in an Aug. 29 trade with San Francisco, coach Mike Tomlin said the current crop of tight ends wasn't "consistently varsity enough for our comfort."
When the regular season opened Sunday, James remained the starter at tight end, and his play in a 21-18 win over the Cleveland Browns reinforced his position atop the tight ends depth chart. With McDonald held to a limited role, James had two touchdowns among his six receptions.
Steelers receiver Antonio Brown stiff-arms the Browns' Jabrill Peppers in the fourth quarter Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, at First Energy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. For more images from Week 1, visit the Trib's photo gallery .
Photo by Chaz Palla
"I know a lot of people doubted me as a starter whenever the trade happened," James said. "The team never did, though, and Ben (Roethlisberger) trusted me and the whole offense trusted me to go out there and compete for us."
James had the Steelers' lone offensive touchdowns Sunday: scoring receptions of 4 and 2 yards in the second and third quarters, respectively. He was targeted more (eight times) by Roethlisberger than any receiver other than All-Pro Antonio Brown.
McDonald, meanwhile, was targeted just once: a ball into his hands that he couldn't hold onto. Not only did James start and play more snaps, perhaps more telling was he was the tight end on the field during the game's final possession after the Browns pulled to within three points and the Steelers could not afford an incompletion that stopped the clock.
James' final catch went for 8 yards on first down with the Steelers at their own 20 and 3 minutes, 33 seconds left in the game.
"He gave me a ball in a tight area. We needed to get as many yards as I could," James said. "That's the type of quarterback Ben is: He trusts his guys, and he gives them opportunities to make plays, and he did that there."
Roethlisberger also trusted James during the only three passes he threw during goal-to-go situations Sunday. Though the first such instance was an incompletion during the final minute of the first half, Roethlisberger went back to James two plays later in the back of the end zone on third-and-goal from the Browns' 4.
Roethlisberger put some velocity on the throw to get it over linebacker Christian Kirksey and allow James to beat middle linebacker Joe Schobert.
"I'm just going over the middle there. The middle of the field is pretty open. You just have the (middle linebacker) to beat," James said. "And that's the expectation. Any time you have a one-on-one, you gotta win it."
James victimized Schobert again late in the third quarter on third-and-goal. With the ball at the Cleveland 2, the Steelers used a "seven shots" play they ran repeatedly during training camp in which James blocks his man to the outside before disengaging and turning in toward Roethlisberger with his momentum taking him toward the goal line and body shielding the defender.
Roethlisberger hit James, who leaned into the end zone while fighting off an attempted tackle by Schobert.
"(James) delivered some big time plays, particularly in the red area," Tomlin said. "Performance in the red area will define us. His contributions in that area, in particular, were exceptional."
Tomlin's praise for James was in stark contrat to his comments on the day the Steelers acquired McDonald.
"When I hear something like that, I don't agree with it," James said Sunday. "Coach Tomlin can say what he wants, but I feel confident in the tight end group we have."
Likewise on the day of Tomlin's initial comments, James insisted he still considered himself "the guy" among the Steelers tight ends.
On Sunday, he showed it.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.