Young Steelers receivers trying to click with new QB Mason Rudolph
It’s not lost on the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers that James Washington had a special on-field rapport with quarterback Mason Rudolph when they played together at Oklahoma State.
It would be hard to miss considering that with Rudolph throwing the football, Washington set school single-game and season records for yards per catch. That Washington had the highest yards-per-catch average among all FBS receivers as a senior at 20.9. Or that in his final season, he had 19 catches that went for 30-plus yards, 11 that were at least 40 yards and eight that surpassed 50.
“The connection he had with James in college,” JuJu Smith-Schuster said earlier in the week, “we’re trying to build that here with all of the receivers.”
The Steelers hope what transpired in the second half of their 24-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 represents a trend in that direction. Smith-Schuster turned a catch on a short crossing pattern into a 76-yard touchdown, and Diontae Johnson had a 39-yard touchdown catch. Even Washington, although limited to two catches for 14 yards, drew a 39-yard pass interference call against cornerback Jason Verrett on the play that preceded Johnson’s touchdown.
They were the only two plays — passing or running — for the Steelers that exceeded 10 yards in the game, but it was a sign Rudolph, in his first NFL start, was getting in sync with one of the NFL’s youngest receiving groups.
With sixth-year veteran Donte Moncrief on the bench, the Steelers started a second-year player in Washington and a rookie in Johnson along Smith-Schuster, a third-year receiver. It was the eighth career start for Washington and the first in the NFL for Johnson.
“We’re real young right now, so it’s going to take some experience and a lot of film work,” Washington said. “I think we can get there.”
Washington, at least, had the benefit of spending three years at Oklahoma State catching passes from Rudolph. They also shared scout-team snaps in 2018. And Rudolph, while competing for the backup job in training camp, threw countless passes to Johnson.
“With most of those guys being young, I already had a lot of reps with them,” Rudolph said. “I felt pretty comfortable with moving into this role. Those guys are getting better every day whether it’s picking up a signal or a huddle call.”
The sooner Rudolph and his young receivers can click on deeper passing routes, the better it will serve the Steelers and their lackluster running game. With defenses often stacking the box, the Steelers have the fourth-fewest rushing yards in the NFL.
Entering the game Monday night against Cincinnati, the Steelers rank No. 26 in pass completions of 20 yards or longer. Ben Roethlisberger had four such completions in six quarters before he landed on injured reserve with an elbow injury. Rudolph had a 45-yard completion to Smith-Schuster in the second half against Seattle before getting the two long gains against San Francisco.
Moncrief was viewed as a potential deep threat when the Steelers signed him to a two-year, $9 million contract in free agency. But he has caught only three passes for 7 yards and was benched after a pass slipped through his grasp and resulted in an interception for Seattle.
Moncrief’s benching resulted in Smith-Schuster playing every snap against the 49ers. Washington was on the field for 92 percent of the snaps and Johnson 79. Johnny Holton was used sparingly, and slot receiver Ryan Switzer didn’t play on offense.
“They have some talented guys,” Bengals first-year coach Zac Taylor said. “I know they are counting on them to step up and make plays. JuJu has been a playmaker all the time that he’s been there. Whenever you see the Steelers, you think they’ve got a crop of receivers they rely on and go up and make plays.”
The ability to keep all three starting receivers involved will help alleviate some of the double coverage Smith-Schuster has received in the wake of Antonio Brown’s departure. Fresh off a 111-catch season, Smith-Schuster is leading the Steelers with 14 receptions for 243 yards.
“Teams have kind of been scoping him out a lot here lately,” Washington said, “but that is the time when the other guys like me, ’Tae and running backs and tight ends have to make plays to balance things back up.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .