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James Washington fighting through slow start with Steelers

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver James Washington cruises past the Chiefs’ Steven Nelson in the second quarter Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018 at Heinz Field.

In his first professional game, he wasn’t targeted for a pass. In his second, he had three catches for 16 yards. In his third, he caught two passes.

JuJu Smith-Schuster’s production at the outset of his rookie season didn’t generate banner headlines or foreshadow an emerging star wide receiver. He was like most first-year pass-catchers, struggling to find his footing in the NFL.

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t alarmed by Smith-Schuster’s lack of productivity in the first half of the 2017 season, which is why they aren’t concerned about James Washington’s slow start this season.

Through six games, Washington’s totals are five receptions on 14 targets for 49 yards and one touchdown.

“It’s a process for him,” said Darryl Drake, the long-time wide receivers coach who is in his first year with the Steelers. “We have to push him along faster and get him more involved. When the opportunities come for him, he has to deliver.”

Washington hasn’t delivered in each of the past two games. He didn’t have a catch and was on the field for just 16 snaps Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals as the Steelers utilized two and sometimes three tight ends in formations.

The week before, against Atlanta, Washington had a drop and then was called for pass interference on a deep pass.

“It just takes time,” Washington said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. You’ve got to keep coming to practice and try to get better and better and take coaching. It’s hard at times, but you have to be available.”

Smith-Schuster had similar issues last season although they weren’t as pronounced. He had 15 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns after his sixth game. His breakthrough came in Week 8 when he caught seven passes for 193 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown, against Detroit.

Smith-Schuster had two more 100-yard games and finished with 58 catches for 917 yards and seven scores.

Drake thinks it’s only a matter of time before Washington gets beyond the growing pains that rookie receivers typically endure.

“In the pro game, we ask them to do so much,” he said. “They have to understand the coverages, they have to understand what the safeties are doing, they have to understand the concepts of what we are asking them to do and they have to be able to make a decision in less than a second.

“The thing I try to get them to do is not think – react. The game is a reaction game, and you have to react the right way. You have to make sure you are going right instead of left.”

Washington admits that the adjustment to the NFL game, where he is asked to line up in multiple spots and has additional responsibilities, has made for a slow transition. He didn’t disagree with Drake’s assessment.

“Just being a rookie, you get out there and you’re out there thinking a lot,” Washington said. “There’s a lot going through your mind, and you try to be perfect. You’re not yet. You still have a lot to learn. Working with the older guys and getting their advice, that helps me get through this time.”

Smith-Schuster is one such player providing assistance even though he doesn’t fall into the “older” category. Although he has one more year of experience than Washington, he actually is seven months younger than the rookie second-rounder from Oklahoma State.

“As soon as they drafted him, coach said you have to take him under your wing, you’re a young guy and we have to help him out a lot,” Smith-Schuster said. “James has been doing good for himself right now. He has some things he has to improve on like everybody. As time goes on, he’ll get better and have more balls coming his way.”

Washington had plenty of balls come his way at Oklahoma State, where he set a school record with 4,472 receiving yards – the second-highest total in Big 12 history. Although he doesn’t have 4.3 speed or exceptional size – he is 5-foot-11, 213 pounds – Washington also had a knack for making combat catches. But he also hasn’t found the separation from defensive backs in the NFL that he enjoyed in the Big 12.

“We talk about separation, but separation in the National Football League is a step, especially when you have man coverage,” Drake said. “He’s able to do that in a lot of instances. The times he’s not might be a technical flaw or something he may not have done. It’s a learning process for him. We are going to continue to push him and help him grow and get to that point.

“I still have the utmost confidence and faith in him that he will continue to do that.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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