Kevin Gorman: Steelers need James Washington to build on preseason performance
James Washington knows what you’re thinking, even shooting a side-eye to the suggestion that his performance in the preseason opener was exactly what he needed.
That the second-year receiver had four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in a 30-28 victory over Tampa Bay on Friday night at Heinz Field was just what the Pittsburgh Steelers needed.
Not only did Washington catch the Steelers’ first pass of the game — for a 43-yard gain — but he also pulled in a pivotal 22-yarder on a third-and-long from Josh Dobbs and scored their first touchdown on a back-shoulder throw from Mason Rudolph.
Washington caught everything thrown his way, even when he officially didn’t. He almost scored another touchdown on a Santonio Holmes-inspired tiptoes catch at the same spot of the end zone as the Super Bowl XLIII winner, if not for Washington’s front foot skimming the white line.
The performance wasn’t so much a boost for Washington as it was for those watching and wondering whether he would live up to his billing as a 2018 second-round pick who the Steelers would like to become their No. 2 receiver.
“It does (give) a lot with confidence, just to get people off your back,” Washington said. “There’s times I’m walking around and people will say, ‘You better do good this year.’ I don’t even know you and you’re talking to me like that?”
What Washington wants to prove is that he’s gaining confidence, not so much in himself as that of his coaches and teammates, especially those throwing him the ball.
“It’s real important because it shows the coaches and gives them a true evaluation of you,” Washington said. “It builds trust with the quarterbacks, as well, and that’s a big factor.”
Where Washington caught passes from both Josh Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, it was the attention he received from starter Ben Roethlisberger that made the greatest impression on him.
“With No. 7 sitting there watching you and evaluating you at the same time, he can tell you things that, say if he’s at quarterback, how he would prefer it or if you did it just right,” Washington said of Roethlisberger, who did not play but watched from the Steelers sideline. “It helps having him being on the sideline and watching you and helping evaluate you and helping you out. He congratulated me on a few routes I ran. He said it was a good route that I ran but if he was out there, to tweak it this way if the corner did this. He was always giving me advice and staying in my ear.”
Roethlisberger has had Washington’s ear since criticizing his diving drop at Denver last November on a pass he should have run through and caught in stride. Washington learned his lesson in that game. Soon enough, he earned Big Ben’s trust by catching three passes for 65 yards against New England — including a 32-yarder — and three for 64 yards (with a long of 47) when Antonio Brown went AWOL against Cincinnati.
If there appears to be a distinct difference in Washington, he’s willing to admit the game has slowed down now that he knows the playbook and is more of a well-rounded receiver instead of one who can only stretch the field.
“There were obviously ups and downs last year for him, but he’s focused and he’s excited to learn, always building and trying to get better,” Rudolph said. “When you put yourself in that position, when you have that type of work ethic, it’s eventually going to roll your way.”
That was evident from the start, when the Steelers saw an opportunity to throw downfield. The Bucs had a safety playing low and their corners playing outside leverage, which allowed Washington to get behind cornerback Vernon Hargreaves for the 43-yarder. If Dobbs hadn’t slightly underthrown the ball, Washington could have taken it for a 94-yard touchdown.
“I’ll take it over nothing,” Washington said. “That’s for sure.”
That’s the difference with Roethlisberger. The 16th-year veteran sees the entire field better than Dobbs or Rudolph, who are relatively inexperienced. It’s the kind of play that should motivate Washington to move into the starting lineup opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster and ahead of Donte Moncrief.
But Dobbs found Washington on a third-and-21 throw to jumpstart the offense. And Washington joked with Rudolph to “take it back to Oklahoma State,” and the teammates connected on that back-shoulder throw for a touchdown.
“It was almost like that take-me-back-home feeling,” Washington said.
It was almost like a take-me-back-to-last-preseason feeling for Washington, who had seven catches for 158 yards (22.6 per) and two touchdowns in the first two preseason games last year. He followed that with 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in the regular season, pedestrian totals for a player of his pedigree.
“Obviously, last year we saw him make contested catches from the preseason throughout the season,” Dobbs said. “Everyone grows from your rookie year to your second year. He was out there making plays over the top of the defense, making contested catches on third down. He’s doing a good job. He’s had a great camp, and we look for him to build on that. I think he’ll be a big key for us this year.”
The key for Washington is to make these types of catches with consistency, to open the eyes of Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and to gain the trust of Roethlisberger. That’s what Washington is thinking, no matter what you think of him after his preseason opener performance.
“You can’t think too highly of yourself right now,” Washington said. “This is the first game, the first preseason game. I’ve got to keep building off of this.”
It’s a must to gain the Steelers’ trust. If Washington is going to do better this year, he’s off to a good start.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .