By John Harris
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Nate Washington knows what you're thinking.
That the Steelers' young receivers can't stretch the field. That they're dropping too many passes and can't be trusted in the clutch.
Sooner or later, Steelers receivers other than veteran Hines Ward are going to have to start making plays on a consistent basis. You can only use youth as an excuse for so long.
"In Pittsburgh, expectations are definitely high,'' said Washington, the Steelers' No. 3 receiver who's hoping to have a breakout game Sunday against Kansas City at Heinz Field. "Fans are great here. Once you do good, there's no turning back.''
Life was great for Washington when he scored the Steelers' first touchdown of the season in a 28-17 win over Miami. His acrobatic 27-yard grab from backup quarterback Charlie Batch raised expectations for Washington, an undrafted free agent who was a surprise addition to last year's Super Bowl team.
Washington hasn't caught another touchdown since the opener. Sometimes he's been barely an afterthought in the passing game.
He calmly addressed the issue of his inability to get open deep, fully believing the Steelers' vertical game has barely scratched the surface of its potential.
"Maybe they don't want to put too much pressure on us,'' Washington said of the trials and tribulations he has faced along with top draft pick Santonio Holmes, who shares the No. 2 receiver spot with veteran Cedrick Wilson. "We're just going with the flow, trying to get the offense in synch.''
Washington believes the Steelers will spice up their routes, throwing more deep passes as the young receivers become more comfortable with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. But these are critical times for the 1-3 Steelers. It's the job of the coaching staff to be more creative and put Washington and Holmes in positions to be successful.
Right now, the Steelers' passing game is predictable, partly because of the inexperience of Washington and Holmes, partly because of the play-calling.
The Steelers' scheme consists of short curls, slants, fade routes and the occassional bomb. The coaching staff has been known to call a wide receiver reverse. But they also might want to consider implementing screens that put their young receivers in open spaces and allows them to use their speed.
The general perception is the Steelers don't have the receivers to stretch the field. Ward is considered a possession receiver, and he still isn't 100 percent because of a lingering hamstring injury. Wilson was given a shot to be that downfield receiver. By my unofficial count, the Steelers targed Wilson 16 times in the first four games, including eight times downfield through the first three games, tying him with Ward among Steelers wideouts getting the most chances to make a big play. Wilson has plays of 36 and 20 yards among his six catches. Last week against San Diego, Roethlisberger threw Wilson's way only three times, and failed to throw to him downfield.
Using the 23-13 loss at San Diego as a barometer, the Steelers want Washington and Holmes to become playmakers. Roethlisberger targeted Washington twice downfield against the Chargers, and he threw an ill-advised bomb to Holmes off a flea-flicker that was intercepted.
"We have routes that stretch the field, but the Steelers are normally a running team,'' Washington said. "Our routes are normally get-the-first-down routes. We don't have the deep 80-yard pass route.
"We definitely have speed,'' said Washington, who claims to run a 4.3 40. "It's just that we never had that type of offense. We're working on those type of things to stretch the field.''
As for Washington, he's still essentially a rookie. He attended Tiffin, a Division II school in Ohio. He didn't play in a single regular-season game a year ago and made his only catch against Denver in the AFC Championship Game.
Washington has nine catches for 117 yards, along with a couple of ill-timed drops, including a potential touchdown against Cincinnati.
"It's been a process for me,'' Washington said. "I'm learning.''
The quicker he learns, the better off the Steelers' passing game will be.