Pittsburgh's Nate Washington, primarily a flanker, will start at split end tonight when Miami comes to Heinz Field.
PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor said it's not even close who is the fastest Steelers receiver, the player who accelerates like a Maserati and gets to full speed quicker than the others.
"He gets to top speed right away, hands down," Taylor said. "You can ask Deshea [Townsend], you can ask any defensive back. It's Nate, hands down."
That is a surprising declaration from Taylor, who gets to cover all the receivers in practice, especially considering the presence of Santonio Holmes, Cedrick Wilson, and even Willie Reid on the roster.
Washington is a graduate of Scott High School and played at Tiffin University.
But Washington's speed is among the reasons the Steelers will make something of a drastic switch at the receiver position when they play the winless Miami Dolphins (0-10) tonight at Heinz Field. It is Washington, not Wilson, who will replace the injured Holmes at split end, even though Washington is primarily a flanker and Wilson was the starting split end for most of last season.
The change may not seem like much on paper, but, because of the difference in route assignments and blocking responsibilities, the position switch is akin to moving Dan Kreider from fullback to tailback.
"It's totally different from the Z," Washington said, referring to flanker, the only position Washington has played since joining the Steelers as an undrafted free agent in 2005. "It's totally different blocking schemes and the sights [adjustments] are different. I'll be in my book a lot more and studying film a lot more this week to prepare myself to play the X."
The "X" is the name for the split end, and the position is designed for more deep routes and big plays. For that reason, it requires a player with speed.
The flanker position requires more blocking and features crossing and underneath routes. Hines Ward, a four-time Pro Bowler, has manned the position since 1999 and developed into the team's all-time receptions leader.
With the exception of a few plays, Washington said, he has never played the split-end position. But he is not asking why he, not Wilson, will get the opportunity to replace Holmes, who has a mild high-ankle sprain and is not expected to play against the Dolphins.
"I don't know the situation," said Washington, who has 16 catches for 251 yards and two touchdowns. "All I'm looking at is the opportunity to make plays and help this team win. Hey, I'm there. I'm not going to ask any questions."
Wilson, who started 12 games at split end in 2006, has just one catch in the last four games and only eight all season - five coming against the Seattle Seahawks when he and Washington started because of injuries to Holmes and Ward. There have been six games in which Wilson has not had a catch. And he does not have a touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said he is making the switch because Washington is a better fit for some of the packages he has installed for the Dolphins.
"Everyone wants more opportunities," Wilson said. "But I think I made the best of my opportunities, catching the ball well. That's all you can really do."
That's one of the areas in which Washington has struggled - catching the ball. He dropped another pass in the 19-16 overtime loss to the New York Jets on Nov. 18, but he said the ball sailed off his hands because of a wind gust.
"It looked like it was coming right at my chest and, at the last second, it kept sailing on me," Washington said. "I got a late jump on the play and I could have made [the catch], but it surprised me so much I tried to catch the back end of ball. No excuse. It's just where we have to make a play for Ben."
Washington might get more of a chance against the Dolphins. He will have to worry less about blocking and more about getting downfield.
"The Z has a lot more blocking schemes. That's the biggest difference," Washington said. "There is a lot more shifting and motioning. But, as far as big plays, anyone out there can make a big play."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.