The Pittsburgh Steelers head into their bye week hoping to get several players back to full health for the remaining 11 games of the 2021 NFL season. One particular position group on offense which has been hard hit is the wide receivers room. With JuJu Smith-Schuster having season-ending shoulder surgery, both James Washington and Chase Claypool were limited in practice heading into the Steelers Week 6 matchup Sunday night with the Seattle Seahawks.
With Chase Claypool battling a hamstring injury and James Washington having a groin issue which kept him out of the Steelers Week 5 game, it was unsure if either player was going to be available against Seattle. Instead, both players practiced fully on the last day going into the game and neither carried an injury status.
Assuming James Washington would be filling in and absorbing the snaps vacated by Smith-Schuster, Sunday night showed exactly the opposite. After being targeted on the Steelers first passing play of the game and pulling in the reception for 9 yards, Washington did not see another pass the rest of the night. Actually, Washington only saw eight snaps on offense for the entire game.
Following Tuesday’s practice when Steelers had coach Mike Tomlin was asked if Washington was still dealing with injury or if it had to do with the matchup, he gave a very short and standard answer.
“No, it’s just matchup related.”
Like many Steelers fans, the Pittsburgh media simply wasn’t buying Coach Tomlin’s explanation. When given a chance to speak to wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard on Wednesday, ESPN’s Brooke Pryor quoted Hilliard’s response. Specifically asked how much of an asset James Washington can be in the passing game, Coach Hilliard give a much more extensive answer.
“Huge,” Hilliard replied. “A lot of that blame has to come to me. I have to sit up there to take it because that’s what it is. Especially that last game. I know everybody’s asking why or looking for reasons or a scapegoat. You can point the finger at me for that.”
With Coach Hilliard taking the blame for the division of labor of the wide receivers in Week 6, he did offer a bit of an explanation. While some thought Washington may have been injured for the game, Hilliard’s explanation goes more into the availability to get up to speed to play a different wide receiver position while having limited practice time due to injury constraints.
“We had two men coming off of soft tissue injury,” Hilliard explained. “Ray-Ray is JuJu’s primary back up. I was really, really comfortable with Cody White backing him up at the F spot. So, the initial idea was to trade basically a series or two with each guy at the Z position. Meaning Chase and James, and Chase‘s hamstring held up a lot better than I expected. With James 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 out there and let him go at the Z and not throw James to the wolves at the F spot and Ray-Ray handled it relatively well.”
Coach Hilliard gave a much more in-depth answer as to the breakdown at each wide receiver position than what many fans realize. With James Washington being the primary back up for Chase Claypool, and Ray-Ray McCloud being JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s backup until he left due to injury, it was just too difficult to get Washington up to speed at a different position while being limited in practice. Additionally, they were unsure if they were going to have either Claypool or Washington available, let alone both of them. It wasn’t until Friday where it became apparent that both players would be available. Coming off of injury, it made sense to split time between the two players in order to not have either one overworked. But as the game pressed on, Coach Hilliard found himself relying heavily on Claypool as Washington stood on the sidelines.
As someone who spent many years coaching both football and other sports, I understand how sometimes through the course of a game you just get caught up in not wanting to make any change and throw off what is happening in the game. On the other hand, Chase Claypool had arguably the worst game of his career in Week 6 as he had only two catches on seven targets for 17 yards. Perhaps utilizing Washington in place of Claypool at various points of the game may have been a wise decision.
Regardless of how it played out in Week 6, what is more important is the division of labor among the wide receivers moving forward throughout the season. With this, Coach Hilliard said the issue has been handled and there is an understanding within the wide receivers group.
“Going forward, I’ve addressed that in the room, personally and those men know and understand that I’ll do a better job,” Hilliard continued. “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. Will do a better job going forward.”
Although it had to be frustrating for James Washington to only see the field for eight snaps on Sunday night, the most important thing is that Pittsburgh Steelers got their third victory this season and pulled to 3–3 heading into the bye week. But moving forward, hopefully Washington can get more of the snaps vacated by JuJu Smith-Schuster and can take advantage of the situation to help the Steelers have a bigger threat in the passing game.
For the complete answer given by Coach Hilliard, see the report by ESPN’s Brooke Pryor below:
Asked Ike Hilliard how much of an asset James Washington can be in the passing game, and he was incredibly expansive on what led to Washington's limited reps Sunday.— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) October 20, 2021
Injuries and their recoveries in the position group were a significant factor to the division of labor. pic.twitter.com/R4mjEMNQk9