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Steelers Film Room: Darnell Washington’s untapped potential as a receiver

Unlocking the big tight end should boost the Steeler passing game

NFL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Five games into the season, Steeler fans are finally getting to see this year’s draft class play meaningful snaps. Against the Ravens in Week 5, Broderick Jones got his first start at offensive tackle and received good reviews. Joey Porter Jr. grabbed his first NFL interception to give the Steelers possession for the go-ahead touchdown drive. Keeanu Benton continued to earn more playing time along the defensive line. Darnell Washington has been a very effective run-blocking tight end all season. For an offense that has struggled to move the football, Pat Freiermuth‘s injury absence in Week 5 seemed like the perfect time to start utilizing the 6’7 rookie tight end in the passing game. However, the resulting stat line shows no catches on two targets. Why wasn’t he used more? Let’s take a look.

This first play is from the first quarter with the Steelers facing a third-and-six from their own 29-yard line. Washington is lined up to the right of the offensive line, just off the line of scrimmage. His route takes him to the 34 where he turns toward QB Kenny Pickett providing a big target. Washington very well may have been the first option on this play, based on the Raven safety lined up between the numbers and the hash at the 40 who watched Pickett’s eyes and bypassed helping out on WR George Pickens to run straight to Washington. Pickett, seeing that now-covered Washington would have to secure the catch and gain yards to make the first down, directs his attention to other options and unsuccessfully tries to hit WR Calvin Austin on a back shoulder throw down the left sideline.

Moving on to the second quarter, the Steelers now face a third-and-11 at the Raven 25. This play appears to be designed to go to Washington as all other receivers are running routes outside the numbers, leaving him and Raven linebacker Roquan Smith one-on-one. Judging by Pickett’s feet and the stripe on his helmet, he is looking for Washington the entire play.

By the time Washington gets past the first down marker and turns around, a free pass rusher has Pickett on the run and he throws it away to the right. Watch Washington’s route at about five yards where he slightly strides to his left. A pure straight-line release may have led to Smith backpedaling and expecting a deeper route into the end zone, leaving Washington more open for a catch and run before the first down marker. If this were Freiermuth running the route with this much space, it’s quite possibly a different outcome before Pickett has to escape the pocket.

Now, in the third quarter, the Steelers have a first-and-10 at their own 26. Washington is on the line of scrimmage at the far hash mark. On the snap he runs five yards before cutting inside, settling at the 32 and turning toward his quarterback as a wide-open target. Pickett looks to his left for George Pickens on a deeper route at the bottom of the screen.

Possibly due to the Raven linebacker drifting deeper into a throwing lane to Pickens, Pickett comes off this route and should have the easy 7-yard completion to Washington. Instead, he scrambles to his right and throws it away.

From the above angle, it’s easy to criticize Pickett for not getting the ball to Washington. From the end zone view, we can see left guard Isaac Seumalo is put on roller skates at the snap and pushed right back into Pickett’s face, taking away the vision and the throwing lane needed to hit Washington.

Still, in the third quarter, the Steelers now have a second-and-four at their 46. Washington is on the line of scrimmage, split just a bit to the right of the offensive line. All three wide receivers line up on the opposite side. After a couple of yards, Washington will cut down to the inside, across the Steelers logo at midfield, and he is wide open for the first down plus some run after the catch space as all three receivers take their coverage deep.

Instead, Pickett sees a defensive back blitz from the three-wide receiver side and looks to take a shot for a big play there. Calvin Austin will run a stutter-and-go route down the left sideline. If his coverage man bites on the stutter move, there is nobody between Austin and a touchdown. Austin’s stutter isn’t much of a move, the defensive back barely hesitates, and Pickett takes a sack.

The end zone angle shows Pickett looking left for that big play opportunity and getting sacked right as Washington turns to look for the ball.

This next clip comes from the fourth-quarter drive that would result in a short-field goal. It’s second-and-goal at the Ravens 7. Washington is lined up just to the right of the offensive line. He drives straight up the field, not tipping which way he will break, until he cuts inside. He has his coverage shielded away from the quarterback and is open as he crosses the goal line. However, at the snap Pickett would choose to throw a slot-fade to Pickens in the back corner of the end zone. Pickett’s read showed his best receiver on a slot cornerback and he wisely tried to take advantage of that mismatch. As Washington gains experience and Pickett’s trust, a back-of-the-end zone throw at crossbar height may become a solid option in these situations also.

Here’s another angle of Washington’s route.

While this article has highlighted the potential on plays where Washington wasn’t involved against Baltimore, it’s always entertaining to watch him do what he is known for. Here, we have a snap-through-whistle block of an edge rusher. On a second-and-five at the Pittsburgh 18-yard line in the third quarter, Washington is lined up next to the offensive line on the right side of the screen. He is facing No. 95 for the Ravens, fellow rookie Tavius Robinson. Robinson only gives Washington one inch and six pounds on paper in this matchup. You wouldn’t know that from watching the play.

Najee Harris will take the handoff and find his first run lane filled by Roquan Smith. Harris gains eight yards by bouncing it outside to a hole created by Washington driving his man outside the numbers and continuing to drive him out of the play even after the tackle. Quite the ride he took Robinson on!

Everything has been difficult for the Steelers offense this season. These clips show that Washington is giving the offense easy targets for easy yards. A combination of his inexperience as a route runner, offensive line breakdowns, Pickett looking for a big play, and Pickett going to Pickens on a mismatch kept Washington from showing up more as a receiver on the stat sheet. There’s plenty to be encouraged about concerning his pass-catching potential. Until that potential develops he can still be a fantastic contributor with his blocking.