Steelers new plan to use James Washington seems questionable at best
By Tommy Jaggi
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a plan to use wide receiver James Washington more following the bye week, but it’s not the plan I was hoping for.
Good news: after the Pittsburgh Steelers deployed James Washington for just 8 offensive snaps against the Seattle Seahawks last week, the plan is apparently to use him in much greater capacity moving forward. However, it sounds like the team is going to try to turn him into a slot receiver.
This comes from the mouth of Steelers wide receiver coach, Ike Hilliard. According to ESPN’s Brooke Pryor, Hilliard took the blame for Washington rarely seeing the football field in Week 7 and did note that some recent soft tissue injuries weighed on his decision.
However, when discussing a plan to use James Washington following the bye week, Hilliard stressed that he intends to use the former second-round pick in the slot — a position Washington has almost no experience in. Here’s some of what Hilliard had to say, via Brooke Pryor:
"With James [Washington] having limited reps during the week at the F, limited practice time, period. It was a little safer for me mentally in a game situation to stick with Chase [Claypool] out there and let him go at the Z and not to throw James to the wolves at the F spot and Ray-Ray [McCloud] handled it relatively well… James will have a better opportunity to get more reps during practice at the F spot and you’ll see a cleaner rotation with all four or five guys playing."
Are Steelers making the right decision with Washington?
I don’t want to be one to be critical of every decision the Steelers make, but I think this is a questionable move, at best. At this point in his career, we really know who Washington is — an outside receiver with build-up speed who has strong hands and can track the ball well in the air. I genuinely don’t believe that the slot is the right role for him.
Unfortunately, the Steelers seem determined to try to get him involved in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s old role. The problem was never that Washington struggled when called upon as an outside receiver; rather that he didn’t have enough opportunities to really help boost the offense.
So far this year, Washington has caught 10 of 14 targets for 108 yards operating in a limited fashion as the team’s ‘Z’ receiver when Chase Claypool comes off the field.
Because Ben Roethlisberger and Claypool have had such a hard time connecting this season, I recently made a suggestion that the Steelers should kick Claypool inside to the slot and let Washington work the ‘Z’ spot — the position he is clearly most comfortable.
I think there’s a great chance that Claypool would be an improved player on the inside thanks to his terrific size and outstanding speed and ability with the ball in his hands. In Week 5 against the Broncos, Claypool caught all 3 of his slot targets while filling in for JuJu for 106 yards and a touchdown, via Next Gen Stats.
By kicking Claypool inside and moving Washington to Claypool’s role full-time, this would give the Steelers their best personnel grouping on the field at the same time, in my opinion.
James Washington is certainly tough enough to catch the ball over the middle of the field, but he’s a very average athlete and I don’t think he’s got great change of direction skills or offers nearly as much as Claypool after the catch. Who knows; maybe Hilliard’s plan for this group will work, but the decision to make Washington the slot receiver seems questionable to me.