Pittsburgh's Nate Washington is catching about everything thrown his way lately.
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PITTSBURGH - One Steelers receiver ranks among the top five in the AFC in dropped passes this season, and his name is not Nate Washington.
Hines Ward is tied for fourth in the conference with four drops through six games, but the pace he's setting with his receptions has drawn little attention to those four missed opportunities.
Ward also leads the Steelers with 28 catches, with 376 yards receiving, with five touchdown grabs and more knockout blows than any NFL wide receiver. He is followed by fellow wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 22 catches for 360 yards and one touchdown.
Washington, who through his early years earned his reputation as a receiver with bad hands, is not even listed among the 26 receivers in the AFC who have at least two drops this season, according to STATS Inc. He's catching everything thrown his way, and the way he's catching them could prompt Ben Roethlisberger to look to his No. 3 wide receiver more often.
Washington, a Toledo native who starred at Scott High School, caught a picture-perfect, over-the-shoulder pass from Roethlisberger in the middle of the end zone for a 50-yard touchdown Sunday that put the Steelers in front of the Cincinnati Bengals by 14 points halfway through the fourth quarter.
Nate Washington leaves the stadium happy after his Steelers beat Cincinnati.
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It was Washington's second deep scoring pass from Roethlisberger in two games.
Against Jacksonville, Washington also broke wide open to catch a 48-yarder along the sideline to put the Steelers in front 17-14.
Washington has 15 receptions for 225 yards - a 15-yard average - and has the team's longest touchdown catch of the season. Last season, he had 29 receptions for 450 yards. Washington moves to the flanker position and Ward into the slot normally when the Steelers deploy three wideouts.
In the meantime, rookie Limas Sweed, who was supposed to push Washington for his No. 3 job, played in his first game Sunday and caught his first pass.
"I've never felt out of place in this offense," Washington said. "There are always opportunities there. It's just that we've been taking advantage of those
He's getting more chances and dropping fewer passes. It was a little more than a year ago that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, promoted from wide receivers coach, bellowed at Washington after he dropped two passes in a preseason game against New Orleans.
"Catch the damn ball!" Arians told him, then added: "If you want to stay here."
Washington took the advice to heart, and drops have not been an issue for him since.
"You know what? Yes, I had some drops in the past," Washington said. "But the funny thing is I haven't had more drops compared to others. Things happen. My opportunities might not be there as much as somebody else's.
"At the same time, this year I've been focusing on me and the guys I play with rather than playing for everybody else. I think I've tried to come out and focus a lot more. It really never dawned on me until people started saying it. I'm not really worried about it."
Coach Mike Tomlin has taken a personal interest in Washington.
"I've been challenging him to be a factor in every football game he plays," Tomlin said. "Last year, he showed us flashes of being a guy to be reckoned with. He'd step up and have a big game and then three or four weeks later he'd step up and have another big game.
"I've been personally challenging him to step up and be a guy to be reckoned with every time he steps into a stadium on weekends, and he's embracing that. But more than that, he's doing the things throughout the week to prepare himself to do that. He's a consistent practice guy for us, and he's getting more opportunities in practice because we don't practice Hines on Wednesdays. Maybe that has something to do with his growth and development in his timing with Ben."
That could end this year. Washington will be an unrestricted free agent if the Steelers do not sign him to a new contract before Feb. 27.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ed Bouchette is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.