The expanded role that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington sought in the preseason is upon him, though not by the circumstances anyone in the organization would've wanted.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster will miss the remainder of the season following surgery to repair a shoulder injury suffered in Sunday's win over the Denver Broncos. And although coach Mike Tomlin said replacing Smith-Schuster will fall on multiple pairs of shoulders, it's Washington who figures to be counted on most to fill the void.
"When you talk about losing a guy like JuJu and how he functions within the framework of our offense, usually you're talking about multiple people assuming the role in some form or fashion," Tomlin said Tuesday, via ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "We're not trying to replace JuJu. We're just trying to provide additional opportunity for those that get expanded roles."
Now in his fourth pro season, Washington has been a relative afterthought in the Steelers' offense to this point (nine catches, 99 yards).
In August, amid Tomlin-refuted reports that Washington requested a trade, he at least acknowledged that he'd made his role on the team a topic of discussion with the team. He's been the Steelers' fourth receiver behind Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Washington had the most productive season of his career in 2019, when he caught 44 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns.
"We got a lot of confidence in James, and so however unfortunate the injury is for JuJu, it does provide an opportunity for James to expand his role and to do some things that we all know he's capable of doing," Tomlin added.
Smith-Schuster didn't exactly light up the stat sheet in his brief 2021 campaign; he scored no touchdowns and averaged just 26 receiving yards per game. That can't all be attributable to Smith-Schuster, however, given quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's struggles. Big Ben played his best game on Sunday, however, and if he's found his stride, Washington's increased action will be well-timed. To the extent that Tomlin spreads around Smith-Schuster's snaps, Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White will see more playing time as well.
The Steelers also added WR Anthony Miller to their practice squad on Tuesday.