The ball came floating down and James Washington appeared out of position. The back of the end zone was behind him. Green Bay defensive back Demetri Goodson was in front of him. The window Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Josh Dobbs had to fit the ball to the rookie wide receiver didn’t really exist.
So Washington created one.
The pass slightly underthrown, Washington reached over Goodson and plucked it out of the air for a 19-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The second-round pick did it again in the fourth period, outmuscling Packers cornerback Herb Waters for a 22-yard score to help Pittsburgh save a little bit of face in an otherwise drab preseason loss.
While some of Washington’s teammates erupted on the sideline after each acrobatic grab, one of them did not.
“It wasn’t a surprise to me at all, I had seen it for four years,” said rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph, who set records throwing the ball all over the field to Washington during their standout college careers at Oklahoma State. “All these guys kind of ‘ooohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ at it but ... I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do.”
Washington hopes to take another step forward Saturday when he is expected to get some reps with the first team as the Steelers host Tennessee. The 22-year-old understands it will take time for him to develop a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger after spending so many years catching passes from Rudolph. Washington has tried to absorb as much as he can since the Steelers took him with the 60th overall pick in the draft. His route running remains a work in progress. His grasp of the offense remains in its infancy. Yet the signs he’s starting to get it are there. Now it’s time to show Roethlisberger he can do it when it counts.
“With Ben, you have to know the defense,” Washington said. “You have to be watching while running your routes. With me and Mason you know, we’re taught, ‘Ok the ball is supposed to go here, it’s supposed to go here.’ With Ben, he’s a Hall of Famer. He knows spots where he can sneak it in and throw you a back shoulder. You have to be ready with him.”
And defenses might be wise to be ready for Washington, who figures to be in the third wide receiver slot behind All-Pro Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster when the AFC North champions open the 2018 season in Cleveland on Sept. 9.
“He’s raw, but the kid can catch,” veteran wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “He has a range that only a few people I’ve seen have. You throw it up, he’s got a great vertical, but it’s his ability to go get the ball that’s amazing.”
Having a frame Rudolph likened to a “bowling ball” helps. Washington is a thick 215 pounds, making it difficult for defensive backs to nudge him off his stride. It gets even harder when Washington unleashes his 39-inch vertical leap. The proof came during training camp at Saint Vincent College, when Washington found himself lining up across from two-time Pro Bowl defensive back Joe Haden.
Haden normally prefers to work against the starters during camp but couldn’t turn down a chance to face off against Washington.
“Once I see him making plays on other guys, it’s like ‘Let me see what you can do,”’ Haden said. “In Latrobe he got me in the end zone. Jumped up and got his hands on the ball the whole time and I couldn’t get it. So he’s just making really good plays. I was like, ‘If you can make that on me, I think you’re going to be good.”’
Asked if Washington chirped at him after the grab, Haden just laughed.
“No, he never said a thing,” Haden said. “I’ve been around a lot of rookies that don’t act like that and aren’t as good (as he is).”
Talking has never really been Washington’s thing. Consider it a byproduct of having to play with older kids while growing up in Texas. At the park across the street from his parent’s house, Washington would find himself running around with cousins five or six years his senior. The only way to gain respect was to go out and earn it.
“I was always I guess pushed to an extent where I had to go hard,” Washington said.
He plays with an intensity that helped him win the Biletnikoff Award last year as the top wide receiver in college football. His quiet demeanor fits in well in a wide receiver’s room that includes the cerebral Heyward-Bey, the relentless Brown, and the ebullient Smith-Schuster. Washington is only too happy to be a sponge, absorbing what he can while proving he belongs.
“I think they’ve accepted my role and what I do,” Washington said. “We joke around every once in a while. Like I told him: Don’t expect me to be the guy yelling, just do my job.”
The Steelers signed inside linebacker Vince Williams to a four-year contract on Thursday that will run through the 2021 season. Williams, a sixth-round pick in the 2013 draft, finished with a career-high eight sacks in 2017. ... Pittsburgh also signed Pro Bowl kicker Chris Boswell to a five-year deal that runs through 2022. ... Coach Mike Tomlin said all healthy starters will see action against the Titans, though Brown, safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker T.J. Watt’s status won’t be certain until game time.