PITTSBURGH -- James Washington is not all that impressed with his big-play August. He's been through this before, tearing up the 2018 preseason only to disappear for parts of his rookie year.
This time around, he even looks unimpressed with himself after each leaping catch. That's because he expects it to last.
"I'm just trying to show coaches something and put it on their minds that I've gotten better," the Pittsburgh Steelers receiver said.
That improvement is on the minds of many inside the Steelers' building. Motivated to rebound from last year's quiet 16-catch, 217-yard campaign, Washington has nine catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns through three preseason games. Sunday's untouched 41-yard score might have been his best, easily beating Tennessee Titans coverage up the middle as former Oklahoma State teammate Mason Rudolph found him in stride.
Though Donte Moncrief appears to have solidified a starting outside receiver job opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster, Washington looks like an X factor the offense needs with his ability to make difficult catches.
Moncrief, Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers were on the field with the first-team offense Sunday as the Steelers employed a quick passing game to ensure two things for QB Ben Roethlisberger: release the ball quickly, stay healthy.
The offense still needs an additional vertical threat, and Washington's playmaking elicited this reaction from staff members a few times during camp: 'That's a heckuva catch.'
On deep balls, Washington is getting open consistently enough that he often has to back-track to secure throws in practices and games.
Washington is quick to point out he's facing vanilla preseason defenses and isn't always going up against first-string defenders. But that hasn't quelled the excitement from Smith-Schuster, who sees a "huge difference" in Washington.
"... As you guys can see during preseason, he’s making plays left and right," Smith-Schuster said. "Like I said, there is no doubt in my mind he’s going to be doing that during the season. Super excited to watch him.”
Natural ability was never an issue for Washington. Last week, a contest broke out in the Steelers locker room to see which players could touch the roughly-12-foot ceiling off a vertical jump (no running start). Washington (5-11) and safety Terrell Edmunds (6-2) were the only players to do it.
But Washington was uncomfortable in the offense a year ago and lost his confidence. Roethlisberger and tight end Vance McDonald were among teammates to call him out, obviously seeing the potential.
Coming off two 60-plus-yard games in the final three weeks of 2018, Washington invested in the Year 2 jump. Losing 15 pounds in the offseason while working on the family farm in Stamford, Texas, should help Washington sustain a 16-game season.
Now, Washington wants to be more than a niche receiver.
"Just making plays and taking everything that comes my way," Washington said. "Doing what I can do to be successful for this team...I'm more effective with (the offense). The playbook, I know it better now. Things are fluid and that helps me react faster."