The Pittsburgh Steelers have seen a fair number of their skill players forced to deal with injuries, recoveries, and a stiff learning curve with two backup quarterbacks running the offense. Two of the more notable injuries on offense have been the absence of James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Still, even when those two were in games, Pittsburgh's offense has not been putting up big scores or outrageous numbers. James Washington, however, has stepped up his game in the past few weeks and is emerging as one of Devlin "Duck" Hodges' favorite targets.
Over the last five weeks of the 2019-20 NFL regular season, Washington has improved his rankings among other receivers in the league as he has helped lift a struggling Steelers team. Per Michael Bertsch, communications manager for the Steelers, over the last five weeks of the season, Washington ranks first among all NFL receivers (with a minimum of 20 receptions) in receiving yards per catch average (20.9), third in receiving yards at the point of the catch (318), fifth in total receiving yards (417), is tied for fifth place in receiving touchdowns (3), tied for sixth with receptions that have gone for 20-plus yards (7), and is ranked 12th among all receivers for reception yards per game (83.4).
The Steelers' offense has been anemic and predictable at times. With Hodges at quarterback in place of Mason Rudolph, however, Pittsburgh's offense has clicked a few more times on drives than they were. Hodges seems to have found a way to remain calm under pressure and lead the receivers in passing lanes or put the ball where they could fight to make a play.
Against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 12, Washington was called for offensive pass interference and then turned around on the very next play and exploded off the line of scrimmage. It set up the following big play; a 79-yard touchdown strike that would be the only trip the offense would take into the endzone during the game.
In Week 13, against the Cleveland Browns, Washington was targeted four times and caught all four passes from Hodges, for 111 yards (his first 100-yard game this season) for a 27.75 yards-per-reception average. He also hauled in a remarkable contested catch, while being interfered with, for a touchdown.
Steelers fans have been yearning to see Washington get to the next level at the receiver position. He had shown flashes during preseason play and in a few games during the 2018-19 season (as a rookie). Things just did not seem to be clicking from week-to-week for the young receiver. In 14 games, Washington caught just 16-of-38 balls thrown to him last season for 217 yards and one touchdown. He was able to make a completion for a first down 11 times. His yards-before-catch before reception average was 10.3 while his total yards-after-catch was 53. In just 13 weeks this season, Washington has nearly doubled many of his 2018-19 totals.
The good news is that Washington likely has not hit his ceiling. When Smith-Schuster does return to the field, Washington will be hot at the right moment for a Steelers team that is fighting for a playoff spot. Washington has the big-play ability that is finally translating and could force opponents over the last quarter of the regular season to try to gameplan for he and Smith-Schuster but that will open up Diontae Johnson, Vance McDonald, Deon Cain, and Nick Vannett on other routes. In essence, Washington's emergence is going to make the Steelers offense less predictable.
There is still a lot in play for the Steelers as they try to keep firm control of their destiny in the final weeks of the regular season. If the run game continues to improve and Washington can continue to shine, the stellar play of the Pittsburgh defense may be just enough to make a winning season more than a reality.