James Washington had himself a night in the Steelers' preseason opener, a 30-28 win against the Buccaneers at Heinz Field.
Washington, a player the Steelers need to make a big leap in Year 2, hauled in four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown, earning high praise from Pro Football Focus in the process:
Top Offensive Grades From Preseason Game #1
QB Mason Rudolph (89.2)
WR James Washington (90.8)
WR Jonny Holton (90.6)
TE Zach Gentry (90.8)
RB Jaylen Samuels (71.6)
T Jerald Hawkins (77.2)
G Matt Feiler (68.7)
C Patrick Morris (62.2) pic.twitter.com/kgKxJBoIqD
— PFF PIT Steelers (@PFF_Steelers) August 10, 2019
Of course, you don't need analytics to tell you this is good:
Or that touchdown, a beautiful back-shoulder throw from his old college quarterback at Oklahoma State, Mason Rudolph:
I had to ask Washington about that chemistry with Rudolph. Those two did work in college, and it appears that connection is rolling into the NFL as well. In 2016, Washington was named the Alamo Bowl's Offensive MVP after catching nine passes for 171 yards and a touchdown from Rudolph. In 2017, he won the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver. In all, Washington caught 198 passes for 4,016 yards and 33 touchdowns from his sophomore year to his senior year — the same timeframe Rudolph held down the team's starting role.
The thing about that, though, is this: Rudolph isn't the Steelers' starter. Yeah, it's nice to see that connection in the preseason, but if Rudolph sees the field in 2019 for the Steelers during the regular season, something bad happened.
This is Ben Roethlisberger's team, so I asked Washington how he balances playing with Rudolph vs. Roethlisberger:
"Practice reps," Washington was telling me at his locker inside Heinz Field after the game. "You just gotta know who you're in there with and know their tendencies. You just gotta go off of that, really."
That response is so Washington. He's understated, quiet and all-business in the purest sense. I even revisited that 43-yard bomb from Josh Dobbs up there with him. The Steelers, after trading Antonio Brown this offseason, need help at receiver. They need young players like Washington to step up and to showcase an ability to make plays. Last season, Washington started six games and caught just 16 passes for 217 yards and one score.
He also had a costly drop in a loss against the Broncos that caught Roethlisberger's attention — in a critical way. But now, in 2019, Washington got off to the perfect start, that deep pass being the first of several glimpses throughout the game.
That had to feel great for him, right?
"Oh, it was a lot — not just for me, but for my teammates," Washington told me. "You look at the sideline, it got everyone going. And it got guys eager to get into the game and make the same plays."
Once again ... That's just so Washington. Five words in, and he shifts gears to talk about his teammates. That "bigger picture" is something Washington understands well. He's never looking to soak in the glory or to build himself up. It's about progress, about work, about wins and about a total team effort.
Still not convinced? He followed up with this:
"I never think I'm perfect at what I do," Washington said. "I'm going to go back, watch film and see what I can do to make everything I do better."
If the Steelers' preseason victory over the Buccaneers is any indication, that approach will work out just fine for the squad in 2019.
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