Trust and chemistry; it’s the foundation to any relationship. You didn’t have it with your ex, which is why he/she is now your ex. James Washington didn’t have it with Ben Roethlisberger in 2018 either. Rumors abounded during the summer leading into his rookie season and the production never developed, then Roethlisberger laid into him during his weekly spot on a local radio station. There’s more, but the “I know he’s a rookie, but you can’t be out there if you’re not going to make those plays for us” line is the most jarring. That was almost one year ago to the day. Washington’s best two games of the season happened after that public lashing, but he still just netted 16 catches (on 38 targets!) for 217 yards and a score on the season.
Drama and tension amidst their stars dominated all things Pittsburgh Steelers throughout 2018 and into the 2019 offseason, and Washington became a bit of an afterthought. Once the dust settled he found himself in a wide receiver room with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, rookie Diontae Johnson, and nothing else of consequence. It was an unusually quiet off-season for the Steelers, which was by design. We kept waiting for buzz to develop on the potential second-year breakout candidate — but it never developed. On the back end of the Steelers’ 33-3 embarrassing loss at the hands of the New England Patriots Sunday night Week 1; it wasn’t as much the 51 yards on two catches (six targets), but that he was out-snapped by the veteran Moncrief 62-36. No one’s ever doubted the veteran’s tools, but all he’s done since getting to the league is not actually translate them to the field. Whether this was because Washington still failed to gain Roethlisberger’s trust, or if he just didn’t perform well enough in camp, the writing was on the wall.
Thus began what appeared to be a Topsy-turvy ride for the Steelers, one they’re comfortable with, but one they thought would be avoided with volatile personalities Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell shipped off elsewhere. First they lost Roethlisberger for the season, then college teammate Mason Rudolph underwhelmed, but not as much as Moncrief (who was eventually cut). Then Washington eventually ceded snaps to the rookie Johnson before injuring his shoulder Week 5. This looked like the beginning of the end for the once promising second-year receiver.
Then he emerged from his injury with a different aura following him. It was a rusty return against Miami paired with the equally as rusty Rudolph as he net just one catch (six targets) for 21 yards, but the tide quickly changed for the vertical threat. At the time his 11 catches (21 targets) for 161 yards and no touchdowns drew a few too many parallels to his rookie season. Twenty-seven catches for 378 yards (6.4 yards per target) and just one touchdown on 59 targets (46 percent catch percentage) is a recipe for a pink slip. At that point the proverbial switch got flipped. He continued to play behind Johnson, but the inefficiencies that had plagued him suddenly ended. He didn’t get many targets, but when he did he was pulling them in – and he was pulling them in for big chunk plays. At first it was all four targets for 69 yards against Indianapolis, then six of his seven targets for 90 yards and a score against the Los Angeles Rams, but then came prime-time against Cleveland. It was a nightmare of a game for the offense as James Conner, Smith-Schuster and Johnson all left with injuries but one lone bright spot emerged from the muck. Washington only net five targets, but he turned those into 49 yards on an offense that otherwise was simply ineffective. Part of it was born from necessity, but his role changed that night.
Enter, Devlin Hodges. After another rough start against Cincinnati, Rudolph got the hook and the undrafted rookie from Samford was thrust into action. When he and Washington hooked up for what amounted to the game-winning 79-yard touchdown – a new relationship was born. The two bonded over duck hunting on the team’s off day that followed, then Washington lit it up for his best day as a pro, pulling in four highlight reel catches for 111 yards and a score in an upset win over that same Cleveland that embarrassed it just 17 days prior. In the aftermath, each commented how they look forward to duck hunting again on the team’s off day and it’s evident Washington has finally found that quarterback he clicks with; one that trusts him – one with whom he just has chemistry. It isn’t something you can force, when it happens as it’s just … there.
This week’s Flavor of the Week: Cornbread. Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with that.