Bruce Arians used his own version of mental warfare on Nate Washington the other night. It's a form of psychology that Arians, the Steelers' offensive coordinator, picked up during his 32 years coaching football.
This is what he said to Washington after the receiver dropped two passes Sunday night against New Orleans:
"Catch the damn ball!" Arians said, repeating his blunt instructions. Then, he added, "If you want to stay here."
Washington went out yesterday afternoon and dropped another, this time in practice. But he more than made up for it when he caught the two touchdown passes thrown by Ben Roethlisberger in the two-minute team drill -- one for 62 yards and the other for 7.
Arians believes Washington not only will stay here but will remain the team's slot receiver, the first extra wide receiver on the field when they use three. Although Washington dropped two touchdown passes last season among other memorable non-catches, those occurred mostly in the first half of the season.
Everyone thought he had conquered the problem until Sunday night.
"Those two the other night were just simple catches," Arians said. Washington was "trying to do too much with it, trying to take a simple curl, shake the guy, go score a touchdown. Just get us a first down!"
Washington, a 6-foot-1 receiver with good speed, has talent in other areas, but dropping passes will catch up to him.
"Oh, it'll catch up to him today if he keeps doing it," Arians said. "There's a lot of talent in that room, so it has to diminish."
Arians and Washington used two words with similar meanings to describe the player's problem.
"Concentrate," was Arians' word. "He has great hands. He tries to run too quick. Just secure the ball. He went through a little stretch last year where he dropped some balls down the middle -- he's made every one of those catches in practices."
"Focus," Washington called it. "Definitely, it's a mental thing. I know I'm a guy who's not going to drop a ball. That's what's in my head. I just have a tendency to get a little lax with catches I think are easy. I have to treat each catch like it's my last."
The Steelers hope the drops shrink because Washington can be a game-breaker.
His first NFL catch was good for 13 yards on a crucial third down in the AFC championship game in Denver. Last season, he caught 35 passes for a team-high 17.8 yards per catch average. He started two games at flanker for the injured Hines Ward late in the year and caught three passes for 78 yards against Tampa Bay and two for 67 yards and a touchdown against Cleveland. He had three 49-yard catches last season and one that went 47 yards.
"He beat the guys deep in Cleveland," Arians said. "He started two games against Tampa and Cleveland. He lit Tampa up and had a great game against Cleveland as a starter. I forgot the rest of the stuff, I just remember the end of the season when he was doing good."
Everyone remembers Ricardo Colclough's muffed punt that helped the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Steelers in the third game of last season, a loss that may have been the turning point of a 2-6 start. Had Washington not dropped two passes -- one for a touchdown and the other on third down -- or even one of the two, the Steelers might have won.
He overcame the drops that plagued him through the first half of the season, however, and Arians does not see the latest evidence as Washington falling off the wagon.
"Everyone knows I can catch," Washington said. "It's just being lackadaisical. That's what I'm working on getting out of. I did not have that problem at all in college."
But if the drops continue, the other talent in the wide receivers' room Arians could turn to includes Ward, Santonio Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, Willie Reid, Walter Young and rookies Dallas Baker and Erik Fowler. There are others at tight end, too, such as Heath Miller, Jerame Tuman and rookie Matt Spaeth.
Holmes could play split end, Wilson flanker and Ward in the slot when they use three. Miller could be used more often when they go to four.
When he is not a heartbreaker, Washington can be a game-breaker. He flashed open by 10 yards on a deep route from the Steelers' 26 in the second quarter Sunday night. As Brian St. Pierre was about to pass the ball to him, he was sacked.
"Everybody would have forgotten the two drops had we not gotten sacked on the curl-and-go when he was wide open for a 70-yard TD pass," Arians said. "He killed the corner. He was 10 yards behind the guy. Then you say Nate had a great game -- if he catches it."