Steelers’ Washington prepares to fill in for Smith-Schuster

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington (13) plays in an NFL football game against the New England Patriots, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — It’s been an uneven rookie season for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington, but he may be needed for a bigger role nonetheless.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh’s leading receiver, is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game at New Orleans, and if he can’t play, the Steelers expect Washington to help fill the void.

Smith-Schuster, who has 95 receptions for 1,274 yards, left Thursday’s practice with a groin injury. He did not practice Friday and did not speak with reporters. Antonio Brown, second on the Steelers with 90 catches for 1,112 yards and a team-best 13 touchdowns, was optimistic about Smith-Schuster’s availability.

“I think he’ll be there for us,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Washington will look to continue his recent upswing.

Pittsburgh picked Washington in the second round of the draft with the hopes that the former Oklahoma State star could take over as the team’s primary deep threat for Martavis Bryant. However, Washington struggled through most of the season.

Washington had just five catches for 49 yards and a touchdown during the first four weeks. He only had eight receptions for 77 yards and a score through 11 weeks and was called out by Ben Roethlisberger for a drop at Denver in Week 12.

Washington was inactive at home the following week against the Los Angeles Chargers. It was the second time in six weeks Washington was a healthy scratch, but he has since rebounded.

“You can’t come in here and seek comfort,” Washington said. “You have to keep working each and every day and things will get better.”

And it has for Washington. The rookie earned praise from Roethlisberger after he established career highs with three receptions and 65 yards in last Sunday’s win over the New England Patriots.

“He just needs confidence in himself because I have confidence in him,” Roethlisberger said. “I wouldn’t throw him the ball if I didn’t believe in him, so it looks like his confidence is coming back, which is important.”

Washington’s confidence was most evident during a leaping 32-yard grab in single coverage ahead of Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty. Washington also broke free for a 24-yard catch-and-run later in the drive.

“It was a lot of excitement just because it was a big catch and it’s something that everybody’s going to look back on and remember,” Washington said. “You just gotta keep moving forward and making plays. You can’t dwell in the past.”

Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner expects more of the same from Washington down the stretch.

“Now, you get a little taste of it and you can even see the excitement in his eyes,” Fichtner said. “Some of that confidence goes, too, with your quarterback. You make a couple plays like that and now all of a sudden it warrants more opportunity, because that catch he made on the sideline was not an easy grab.”

Washington said he’s becoming more comfortable in the Steelers’ offense and he was happy to contribute to the win over New England. He doesn’t expect a drop-off if he has to fill in for Smith-Schuster against the Saints.

“Nothing changes,” Washington said. “Like they always tell us, you have to learn how to play every position. It’s not just one position. You have to learn every position and the concepts.”

NOTES: Pro Bowl RB James Conner will miss his third straight game with an ankle injury sustained Dec. 2 against the Chargers. Rookie RB Jaylen Samuels rushed 19 times for 142 yards, while also hauling in two passes for 30 yards, against New England.