Breakout stalled, James Washington still searching for 'Top Gun' moves

PITTSBURGH -- While a record-breaking receiver at Oklahoma State, James Washington often got free on a move his coaches called "Top Gun": creating separation with a hip push-off is like hitting the air brakes and watching the jet fly by.

Only one problem navigating that move against NFL cornerbacks.

"They call it 'throw by' here. It's illegal," the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver said. "Unless you can do it subtly. I'm trying to become a pro."

That means mastering the nuances of the receiver position in the Steelers offense, which is the next crucial step for the clearly talented second-rounder.

Watch Washington in a practice setting and you'll see at least one impressive play from the graceful leaper who excels at the combat catch.

But as a third or fourth receiving option in Pittsburgh, Washington is stuck on five catches for 49 yards despite 14 targets. That 35.7 percent success rate is well below the next-closest receiver with at least 10 targets, Antonio Brown, who has 40 catches on 72 targets (55 percent).

To be sure, many plays designed for Washington are intermediate or deep passes with a lower success rate. But finding a rhythm on the field has admittedly been a process for Washington, who was held on one deep ball (a no-call) and was called for pass interference on another. In the Week 6 victory over Cincinnati, the Steelers turned to veteran Justin Hunter over Washington late in the game.

For the first time, Washington is adjusting to a supporting role.

"We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed in this offense," Washington said. "[A breakout] can happen at any time. Just when, I don’t know. I just got to keep trying to do my job and make the plays that come my way. It’s kind of challenging at times. I’m trying to get used to it. At Oklahoma State, there were only a few of us. Here, you’ve got to accept the role you’re given and try to do what you can do."

A catalyst is a chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has said he planned to be patient with Washington. Still, on occasion Big Ben has given Washington a few where-were-you-headed glances after failed plays. Pittsburgh's offense requires receivers to understand every spot along the formation and make adjustments based on coverages.

Washington admits he's most comfortable in one-on-one settings, but "with [Brown] on the team, you see a lot of different things." It's up to him to make plays happen depending on how Brown is bracketed in coverage.

"It’s a lot better than what it was," Washington said about the connection with Roethlisberger. "There’s times where one thinks this, the other thinks this. But, I guess just over time it will [smooth out]. I’ve talked to JuJu [Smith-Schuster] all the time, and he said at this point last year, he was still making some mistakes. You’ve just got to keep trying. You can’t give up."

Smith-Schuster, himself a second-round pick in 2017, had 17 catches for 192 yards through his first six games but has exploded since, on pace for 100-plus catches and nearly 1,500 yards in his second season.

The Steelers aren't ripping the ball deep like in recent years. Thirteen of Roethlisberger's 261 passing attempts on the season traveled 31 yards or farther downfield, completing two of those attempts. That's 4.98 percent of the time, compared to 7-plus percent the previous two seasons.

But Washington has been a target on several of those vertical shots, and the coaches have told him they would keep sending him deep.

When the ball's in the air, Washington plans to show NFL savvy.

"Just trying to convert my mind to play and think like a pro," Washington said. "Just pick up where [teammates] are, that’s the main thing."