PITTSBURGH — James Washington’s underwhelming rookie year was exhausting, so he coped the only way he knew how.
He got back to work on the family farm in Stamford, Texas, where Washington helped his dad change tractor tires or work on crops from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Open-field sprints commenced in the late afternoon.
Returning to normalcy helped Washington — who’s fighting for a starting receiver job with the Pittsburgh Steelers alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster — reimagine his physique, coupling the hard work with portion-control eating of farm food.
Steelers coaches were pleased by the transformation upon his return to Pittsburgh.
“I was pretty big,” said the 5-foot-11 Washington, who is down about 15 pounds from the 223 to 225 pounds he estimates he played at last season. “Just eat less, working and working out. Basically. Didn’t really do anything too crazy. It just started to fall off.”
Washington’s rookie year wasn’t a total disaster. He finished it with two performances of 60-plus yards in the final three weeks of the season. But his 42.1 percent catch rate (16 receptions on 38 targets) was easily the worst among Steelers with at least 10 catches. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out Washington on his weekly radio show for not trusting his hands on a deep-ball drop in Week 12.
Washington’s biggest strength — the ability to make contested catches — was drowned out by the miscues and confidence issues.
Washington aimed to return faster and mentally ready.
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“I feel like I know more of the plays. … I feel I’m quicker off the ball,” Washington said. “I’m able to run with everybody.”
More preparation might result in less tough love from Roethlisberger, but Washington is prepared for that, too. In fact, he revels in it.
Washington and Roethlisberger had a one-on-one conversation in Week 13 that Washington said aided his evolution in the offense.
“It’s hard coaching,” Washington said of Big Ben’s criticisms. “I’ve been hard-coached my entire life. It wasn’t really anything new to me, and it kind of helped me get back on track a little bit. … He’s a captain. That’s what a captain is supposed to do. Encouraging words made me at ease.”
Free-agent addition Donte Moncrief might have the inside track on a starting job, but up to six receivers could hold down key roles. Eli Rogers is a slot option. Ryan Switzer can line up anywhere. Third-round pick Diontae Johnson will get a hard look.
But make no mistake, Washington has the raw ability to become a catalyst.
The Steelers hope healthy competition ignites him.
“It brings the best out of all of us,” he said.