James Washington more at ease playing with Roethlisberger, Steelers
James Washington never felt entirely comfortable in the Pittsburgh Steelers offense — or with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — in his rookie season.
A late-season pep talk by Roethlisberger calmed the young Steelers wide receiver’s nerves. Still, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Washington began to feel at ease around the team’s franchise quarterback.
He hopes that cohesion serves as a springboard into a strong second NFL season.
Washington was one of 10 skill-position players Roethlisberger invited to his vacation lake house in Georgia. The players spent time in the pool and riding on Roethlisberger’s boat, and they also mixed in a little football while bonding during a getaway that preceded organized team activities.
“It was a time for us to get to know each other a little better,” Washington said. “Last year, we never really got to hang out.”
Because of that, Washington felt intimidated by Roethlisberger, a view that changed over those few days spent relaxing in the Georgia sun.
“It was always me looking at him like, ‘It’s Ben Roethlisberger, Hall of Famer,’ ” Washington said. “We went down there, and I started to look at him more like a human being like I am. It helped everyone. Everyone felt the way I did. It was good for us.”
The belief is a more relaxed Washington will enable him to slide into the No. 2 spot at wide receiver. With Antonio Brown being traded to the Oakland Raiders, JuJu Smith-Schuster moved up to the top spot, leaving a vacancy in the starting lineup.
“Everyone is wanting that job,” Washington said.
The Steelers, however, want Washington to step up and take it.
Although they signed veteran Donte Moncrief in free agency and drafted Diontae Johnson in the third round, the Steelers are counting on Washington making a seamless transition into the No. 2 role.
To help him get quicker breaks, Washington shed 15 pounds in the offseason and weighed 209 pounds when he reported to OTAs.
Smith-Schuster sees not only a slimmer wide receiver but a more confident one.
“He’s not jumping every time he goes to catch a ball,” Smith-Schuster said. “He’s running through all of his routes.”
That was in reference to the most infamous play of Washington’s rookie season. In a Week 11 game at Denver, the score was tied 17-17 late in the third quarter when Roethlisberger called Washington’s number. Washington got a clean break and cut up the right sideline, getting behind the Broncos defensive backs. The pass was beyond Washington’s reach, but instead of remaining in stride, the rookie leaped for the ball and lost control of the pass when his body hit the ground.
It was the third target without a catch that day for Washington. The Steelers lost 24-17 and he was benched the following week against San Diego.
“I was tense,” Washington admitted.
Roethlisberger talked privately with Washington, and the encouraging words paid dividends down the stretch. Washington had eight of his 16 catches and 140 of his 217 receiving yards in the final four games of the season.
Despite the strong finish, Washington realized he underachieved as a rookie. It didn’t help that he drew comparisons to Smith-Schuster, another second-round draft pick who had 58 catches for 917 yards and seven scores a year earlier in his rookie season.
“It wasn’t what they wanted,” Washington said. “I wanted it, too. I was disappointed because I had high expectations for myself, and this team has high expectations for me.”
What set the bar so high for Washington was his performance in training camp and the preseason. He made a series of acrobatic catches in practice and led the Steelers with 158 receiving yards while catching seven passes, including two for touchdowns, in the exhibition games.
Washington learned a difficult lesson when his success didn’t transfer into the regular season.
“You can’t be overanxious about it. You have to approach it the same day by day,” he said. “You can’t go out and do it in one day. You have to keep working and stacking days.”
This spring, he already has spent more time working with Roethlisberger than he did during the 2018 voluntary workouts. Roethlisberger skipped seven sessions while on a family vacation, leaving Washington to work with backups Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, his teammate at Oklahoma State.
Washington got consistent reps with the first team in the first three days of OTAs this spring.
“It’s starting off a lot higher,” Washington said of his confidence. “That’s because of the hard work I put in. I cut weight, and I’m coming in fresher. I know the playbook a lot more, so I feel more comfortable.”
That is particularly true off the field. The little junket with Roethlisberger to Georgia is a trip Washington wish he could have made before his rookie year.
“For sure,” he said. “I would have approached the season a lot different. Every time I was in the huddle with him, I was nervous because you don’t want to mess up when you get reps from that guy. It really helped relax me.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .