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Breakfast with Benz

Tim Benz: James Washington could be the No. 3 WR the Steelers need

| Friday, July 13, 2018, 6:48 a.m.

It’s our fourth installment of “Stairway to Seven.” Seven Steelers in seven days that could elevate the team to from what they were a year ago to a potential seventh Super Bowl championship.

Not the Killer B’s. Not Cam Heyward. Not the standout offensive line. Players who can be positive variables. Guys that can help close the gap between the Steelers and another title which has eluded them for a decade now.

•••

For the first time today in “Stairway To Seven,” we go to the offensive side of the football.

At the risk of giving too much away for next week, it’ll be the only time we go to the offensive side of the football.

I know what you are thinking. “Tim, the defense obviously has more questions than the offense. But, c’mon. Isn’t that a little TOO stilted in one direction?”

No, actually. It isn’t.

As I stated above, I’m not going to be using this preview to feature the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Those guys need to be the superstars that they are or else the Steelers won’t go to the Super Bowl.

We know that already.

Collectively, each guy along the offensive line has to be as good as he has been since 2015 or else the Steelers won’t go to the Super Bowl.

So that really only leaves three or four positions on offense to feature.

Remember, we are looking for variables here. Guys who are going to have elevated roles, or new positions of importance. Maybe a guy that needs to be better than what he was in 2017.

Or in this case: a rookie.

It’s first-year wide receiver James Washington out of Oklahoma State.

I’ll be honest. I thought about being a little bit more “click-baitish” by writing about JuJu Smith-Schuster here. Because anything involving JuJu and the internet automatically goes viral.

But I’m trying to stay on point with the purpose of the piece. It’s Washington who is more of an “X-factor” than Smith-Schuster.

Sure, the easy path to go down is to say: “JuJu needs to step up because Martavis Bryant is gone, and he is going to have an increased role.”

Yeah. Kind of. I guess.

But wasn’t Smith-Schuster in essence the second-best wide receiver a season ago, anyway? If we are talking about what was missing from this team last year to get it better this year, was it really a second wide receiver threat after Brown?

Not in my opinion. I feel Smith-Schuster accomplished that.

As a rookie, he was 83 yards short of 1,000. Only Detroit could boast a pair wide receivers who had 1,000 yards each last year (Golden Tate and Marvin Jones).

So the concern isn’t about Smith-Schuster replacing Bryant. The concern is more about Washington replacing Bryant as a third option.

And not only that, but also replacing Bryant as deep threat and being better at it. That — to the point of this exercise — is specifically where Washington could make make the Steelers better.

First, can he at least match Bryant’s output of 50 catches for 603 yards? I say Washington can, and he will.

If he doesn’t, the guess here is that it’s because Roethlisberger will be using the tight ends more often in Randy Fichtner’s system, or he will have avoided the early-season bugs he encountered with Bell in the passing game a year ago.

Secondly, can Washington be the deep target Bryant used to be prior to his deflating season of 2017? Again, I think he can and he will.

Washington doesn’t have the freakish combination of footspeed and size that Bryant possessed. But, especially in 2017, Bryant rarely put his total package of athletic gifts together with any measure of consistency.

While being paired with Mason Rudolph in Stillwater, Okla., Washington frequently used his strength and route-running to get himself open, even if his 4.5 speed was a tick or two less than the normal burners who tend to work outside the numbers.

The Steelers drafted Washington because they love his ability to adjust on deep throws and win 50-50 battles. Those are talents Bryant didn’t channel regularly. Basically, Washington plays bigger than what he is whereas Bryant sometimes disappeared in combat situations down the field.

Think of all those misfired deep balls between Roethlisberger and Bryant last year. They often killed drives or were golden opportunities to get six points that evaporated. They weren’t all on Bryant. Although, maybe a more determined receiver such as Washington makes those plays.

Should that happen in 2018, look for the Steelers offense to be in an even better position to overcome the team’s defensive deficiencies.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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