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Film Room: The ups and downs of James Washington’s roller-coaster 2019 season

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A deeper look at the Steelers leading receiver in 2019

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

James Washington led the Steelers in receiving yards in 2019, but it wasn’t a typical team-leading season. Most of his receiving yards came in a 6 game stretch in the middle of the season, and in other games he was third or even fourth in yards.

Here’s James Washington’s production with the season divided into 3 sections, the start of the season through the Miami game (he missed Week 6), the Colts game through the Arizona game, and the last 3 games of the season.

James Washington was targeted pretty consistently throughout 2019, but the results were drastically different in the middle of the season. In Weeks 9 through 14, 37.5% of his games played he recorded 38.8% of his targets, 54.5% of his receptions, 61.2% of yards and all 3 of his touchdowns for the season.

This film room is going to look at the tape from all throughout the 2019 season to try to find what led to the increase in production and what caused him to drop back down to early season levels of production at the end of the year.


A slow start

James Washington was drafted in the second round because in college he had been a really productive deep threat. The reason he wasn’t drafted higher was because at 5’11” and running a 4.5 forty-yard dash at the combine, he didn’t fit the normal height and speed combo teams look for in deep threats.

Week 1, 2nd quarter, 2:20.

James Washington shows several of his best attributes here, winning the initial hand battle, twice keeping the cornerback’s left hand off of him. If the corner gets that left hand in Washington’s chest, he can use it to limit the route. If the defender tries to slow him down with his right hand, he will end up reaching across his own body, and it will draw a flag almost every time.

After he gets free of the corner’s hands, Washington stacks his defender, stepping in front of him so that he has no chance of interfering with the route legally.

The ball is thrown a bit too far, and this is where James Washington’s size/speed limitations show up. A true burner of a deep threat would accelerate to this ball and have a shot at catching it, a really tall receiver might have the reach to pull it in. James Washington presents a smaller window for this pass because of his height and speed.

Week 1, 3rd quarter, 13:27.

Washington has a good release, wins the hand fight, then keeps his lane through a bump, and makes an easy catch on the pass. He reliably wins physical one-on-one matchups, and has good hands. Washington just also requires a more accurate pass than a lot of deep threats.

Ben Roethlisberger has thrown for a lot of yards with receivers that are fast or tall, Plaxico Burress, Nate Washington, Mike Wallace, Martavis Bryant, and Sammie Coates all found success with Roethlisberger throwing to them. So far Roethlisberger’s connection with James Washington hasn’t led to similar results.

Mason Rudolph took over in Week 2, and despite having an incredibly productive connection with James Washington in college, Rudolph would only target Washington on 7 of his 74 passes in his first 3 games.

Mason Rudolph was plagued with accuracy and timing issues through the first half of the season, and it shows up in James Washington’s film.

Week 8, 1st quarter, 7:39. James Washington is the receiver to the far left of the screen at the snap.

James Washington gets open across the middle, but the ball is throws well behind him and he can barely get his fingers on it. This throw was 4 feet off target. Very few receivers would have caught it.

Week 8, 1st quarter, 8:31. James Washington is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

This is a 30-yard out route. It isn’t a terrible throw, it’s good placement considering where the defenders are, but it isn’t an easy catch with a defender on his back. James Washington drops it, and it was almost an interception.

When the passes aren’t great and the receiver isn’t making tough catches, you aren’t going to put up stats. This was the end of Washington’s slow start, as things would start to turn around in Week 9 against the Colts.


James Washington rises to dominance

Take a last look at the 2 clips above from the Miami game before continuing.

Week 9, 2nd quarter, 11:20, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Mason Rudolph hits James Washington for a quick gain through a small gap in the defense. Look at the catch James Washington made.

A few inches closer than the one in Miami, and Washington pulls it in. Making a big catch boosts confidence in both the receiver and the quarterback.

Week 9, 1st quarter, 5:12.

In Week 8, Washington dropped a similar ball for a near interception. This time he recovers and makes an incredible second-effort catch to give the Steelers a first down. Mason Rudolph was improving, but this is mostly James Washington making tough catches he missed the week before.

In Week 10, the Steelers faced the Los Angeles Rams, and while Mason Rudolph played the whole game, he was a different quarterback.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 0:40, James Washington is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This is who James Washington is, the guy who wins contested catches. This was not an easy catch, but Rudolph places it well, and Washington comes down with it.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 6:45, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Washington wasn’t the best route runner coming out of college, and he still doesn’t make the sharpest cuts, but on this route he makes a perfect cut. Mason Rudolph throws with anticipation and the ball is on target and in rhythm. This is how you make plays easy, good execution from both the quarterback and the receiver.

In Week 11 the Steelers faced a Cleveland team who had answers for both the Steelers defense and offense, and Mason Rudolph would have a nightmare of a game. The next week in Cincinnati, he was hesitant and inaccurate, and would end up being replaced by Devlin Hodges.

Week 12, 2nd quarter, 1:37, James Washington is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Washington runs a solid route here, selling enough of an outside route to buy room, but you can see how small the window still is on this route. The deep safety and the corner are right behind Washington. Rudolph is right to lead him to the end zone, but Washington isn’t a burner so he isn’t gong to run it down.

Week 12, 3rd quarter, 11:22, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Devlin Hodges takes over for Mason Rudolph, and his third pass of the game is the longest play of the season. A fantastic 45 yard throw by Hodges hits Washington in stride and a stiff-arm later Washington gives the Steelers the lead. Washington had 55 yards on 8 targets in Week 11 and 12 from Mason Rudolph. Devlin Hodges’ first completion to James Washington gained 79 yards, turned the tide of the game, and made James Washington the leading receiver for Week 12. Hodges and Washington were just getting started.

Devlin Hodges wasn’t ready to be an NFL starter in 2019, but he came in throwing accurate balls all over the field and James Washington’s production took off.

Hodges was chosen as the starter for Week 13, and through the first 23 minutes, the offense was on training wheels with the rookie free agent quarterback.

Then Sheldon Richardson jumped off-sides on a 3rd and 9 play and Hodges just chucked a ball in James Washington’s direction on a free play.

Week 13, 2nd quarter, 6:53, James Washington is the receiver to the top of the screen.

You don’t throw this pass on a normal play. James Washington isn’t open. But on a free play it doesn’t matter.

Check out the catch Washington makes, especially his right foot getting down just in bounds.

Hodges drops the ball in the perfect spot, and Washington makes the catch in bounds. This play was huge as the Steelers were trailing 10-0 and looking for anything to get their offense going.

James Washington would catch 2 more long passes, including the tying TD, and the catch below against Denzel Ward that would help set up the go ahead TD.

Week 13, 3rd quarter, 13:01, James Washington is the WR on the line to the top of the screen.

Devlin Hodges sees James Washington in one-on-one coverage and lets the ball fly. Washington wins the release, the route, and the ball. The Steelers would win the game behind James Washington’s 111 yards and 1 TD on 4 targets.

James Washington’s contested catch ability led the Steelers to their best offensive game of the season, with three 60+ yard scoring drives, all involving a 30+ yard reception from Washington.

It took a rookie in way over his head leading an offense that couldn’t move the ball to take these gambles, but the Steelers were desperate. Devlin Hodges was throwing deep balls with accuracy, and James Washington was winning battles with corners.


Coming back down to Earth

In Week 14 the Steelers never trailed, Diontae Johnson made big plays with the ball, and James Washington was only targeted 4 times, catching all 4, but for a total of 33 yards. A lack of desperation gave no cause to attempt a repeat of Week 13.

Against the Bills in Week 15, there would be plenty of desperation.

Week 15, 1st quarter, 8:57, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The key to this play is when Devlin Hodges throws the ball. He throws it as soon as James Washington commits to going outside of Tre’davious White. It’s already on the way when Washington cuts back inside and White is effectively running the route Hodges throws.

This play is won when Tre’davious White takes away the outside route for Washington, leading him to go back inside.

This is great defense, and it reveals the limitation Washington’s speed puts on his ceiling. Top tier athletes at corner can stay in front of Washington without engaging him and just play the ball. A true number one corner like White is more than a match for James Washington.

Week 15, 2nd quarter, 14:17, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

James Washington ends up with just a safety trying to cover him, and James Washington wins another contested catch.

Week 15, 4th quarter, 3:10.

Another defender that isn’t a match for James Washington leads to Washington’s last deep reception of the season.

Facing the Bills, the Steelers receivers were James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Tevin Jones, Deion Cain, Nick Vannett and Zach Gentry. Only two of those six players even had a catch in 2018, when James Washington and Nick Vannett combined for 486 yards.

This is not an NFL offense. The Steelers defense gave up some big plays on miscommunications in this game, and it was still a one-score game. James Washington accounted for 36% of the Steelers team yards gained, and he didn’t have a great game.

The Jets would destroy the Steelers offense by playing off James Washington, similarly to how Tre’davious White defended Washington and cheating the safety to that side to help while they threw disguised defenses and blitzes at Devlin Hodges.

Week 16, 2nd quarter, 12:11. James Washington is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

Playing off to take away the deep ball had a few weaknesses, the first is quick out routes.

Hodges was struggling to read the Jets defense and keep track of Jamal Adams, but he could still throw accurate passes and James Washington was still making catches.

Perfect timing and great placement on the pass. James Washington keeps control of the ball through a horse-collar tackle.

Week 16, 2nd quarter, 0:14, James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The second weakness of playing that far off is the corner forfeits the right to physically direct the route. This play results in a penalty for illegal contact by the cornerback.

If you don’t initiate contact in the first five yards, you run the risk of getting called for this. This penalty would set up the Steelers only TD of the game.

Week 17 the Ravens blitzed Hodges relentlessly and the Steelers offense crashed head on into Devlin Hodges’ rookie wall.


Conclusion

James Washington burst onto the scene in 2019 when Mason Rudolph started throwing better passes, really took off when Devlin Hodges took over at quarterback, and desperation led the offense to rely on James Washington winning one-on-one matchups downfield.

James Washington showed his worth in 2019 as a player that is capable of consistently winning against the majority of corner backs in the NFL. He isn’t an elite deep threat, but he is a constant threat to make a big catch.

When the top three wide receivers were Juju Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Diontae Johnson, they most frequently lined up with Diontae Johnson by himself at the X and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the slot with James Washington outside Smith-Schuster. I expect the 2020 offense to start off with those three playing those same roles. In this alignment, James Washington is going to get a lot of one-on-one matchups. If he can develop chemistry and timing with Ben Roethlisberger on the field like he had with Devlin Hodges in 2019, he will be a tough matchup for any defense facing the Steelers.