Steelers wide receiver Nate Washington (85) has let several key opportunities slip through his hands this season. Ken Brooks/Herald-Standard
PITTSBURGH - He was Ben Roethlisberger's "receiver to watch" before the opener, and the words seemed prescient after Nate Washington pulled in a 27-yard pass for the first touchdown of the NFL season.
But Washington's season turned soon thereafter. He dropped a key third-and-six pass before dropping a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers settled for a field goal as their last score in the 28-20 loss.
Of course, the Steelers' new No. 3 receiver did add touchdown catches against Kansas City and Atlanta, but end-zone drops against New Orleans and last Sunday against Baltimore have stamped Washington as a question mark for next season.
The Steelers will look to re-stock their roster after this disappointing season, and the undrafted second-year receiver from Tiffin, who has as many drops as catches in the end zone this season, can't be feeling too secure about his spot. He's disappointed in his performance so
"In a way," Washington admitted. "You kind of want those plays back that you mess up. But everything's not going to be perfect, so what I had to learn is that after those mishaps I have to come back and let it go and fight for the next play. I'm not going to be perfect out there; no one is. So I'm trying to get myself in tune to moving forward or it's going to affect you on the next play. It kind of happened to me in the Saints game. I dropped two passes over the middle on seam routes because I was beating myself up over what happened on the first one."
Washington isn't looking back, and why should he? Sunday's game against Tampa Bay represents a new start. With Hines Ward out with a knee injury, Washington becomes the Steelers' starting flanker.
It's a vote of confidence from a coaching staff that could've easily justified starting first-round draft pick Santonio Holmes, who's second on the team with 32 catches for 486 yards.
Holmes has only one touchdown catch, but he also has only one drop - anywhere on the field - all season.
Washington is tied with tight end Heath Miller for fifth on the team with 27 catches, and is third with 431 receiving yards. Washington leads the team with a 16.1 yards-per-catch average.
"It's very exciting," he said of his opportunity Sunday.
"On one hand you have your leader down, the guy you look up to whenever you get down on yourself. I know he'll be there right on the sideline with us, but it's kind of hard being the first time we're not going to be right there with him in a regular-season game. It's exciting though at the same time. It's my first regular-season start.
"Many people don't get this opportunity. I never thought I'd be getting this opportunity, so it's kind of exciting at the same time."
It's obvious the coaching staff hasn't given up on Washington and neither has Roethlisberger.
After Washington dropped a 10-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter Sunday, Roethlisberger came back to him with his last two passes of the game.
Washington did snare a 27-yard pass and held onto the ball after taking a ferocious belt from safety Dawan Landry. That catch and the subsequent drop symbolize Washington's inconsistency this season.
"I try to do too much, worrying about securing it," Washington said.
"There's so much running through my head while the ball's coming to me instead of getting back to my basics, you know, having a clear head and just making the catch I know I can make."
Washington also took some criticism for an apparent lack of effort while chasing down an interception against the Cleveland Browns. Washington took exception to the question, the first he'd heard of the play.
"Nobody feels how I feel to run three, four deep routes and come back and have to chase a guy after an interception," he said. "It's a fight and it's a heart-will type of thing, but physically you're dog-tired out there, especially the situation where it's raining and your legs are working 10 times harder to fight to stay up in that weather on that grass, so for the people that think I loaf, I would love to see them get out there and do what I do every Sunday. I work hard. I go hard. Even if I'm not able to make the play I still try my best. The coaches never came to me and questioned me about loafing on that."
All of those questions and criticisms can come to either an end or a peak Sunday with his first start. Washington is looking forward to the opportunity.
"Definitely," he said. "I can't wait."
NOTES - Tampa Bay is 1-21 in games played when the temperature dips below 40 degrees. The forecasted high for Sunday is 41 degrees, but the game won't start until 4:15 p.m. ... The only players to miss practice were Ward and Troy Polamalu and both have been ruled out of Sunday's game.