By Zach Metkler of GZ Sports Report, special to the Point of Pittsburgh
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In the offseason, the Steelers made a splash signing by bringing in the uber-athletic tight end Ladarius Green. So far, Green has blown fans away with the following stat line: 0 receptions, 0 yards, 0 touchdowns.
That was sarcasm for those of you who couldn’t tell.
After an onslaught of media attention for injury questions that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t figure out, Green was sidelined for the entire offseason and preseason and has yet to play a single snap for the Steelers. After the retirement of Heath Miller, the Steelers expected Green to be the savior at tight end and to give them another vertical option to add to their already loaded offense. Regardless if it is concussion symptoms or an ankle injury that is keeping him off of the field, Green’s absence has led to the emergence of another player.
Let me take you back a bit. James spent the first half of his rookie year inactive, serving as a spectator, learning the ropes and continually developing. Many athletes might have let the frustration of not playing get to them, but James saw it as an opportunity to work harder in practice, study his playbook more, and prove to the coaches that he was ready to play. James admitted during the offseason that he could have played during that time to relieve Heath Miller, but says that it would not have been the best performance and likely would have hurt the team.
Entering the league, James was put into a situation where he was able to learn from veterans like Matt Spaeth and Miller to see how they played with the Steelers’ offense. James’s time finally came in Week 9 of the 2015 season against the Raiders when Spaeth was inactive with a knee injury. James’s stats weren’t huge, totaling only two receptions for 13 yards but was able to score his first NFL touchdown, which was a redzone target. While it might not seem like it, that game was the first game that James began to show his mettle as a player and how he wasn’t just another late-round pick.
As the season went along and the offseason came, James began to show more confidence as the game appeared to begin slowing down for him. Like with most players, confidence isn’t just an individual task. You also have to earn the confidence of your teammates and coaches, which isn’t always an instant process for players in the NFL.
Over the offseason, the Steelers parted ways with Spaeth and Miller walked off into the sunset into retirement. While many fans were calling for the Steelers to sign a veteran tight end to give the offense some life, James went about his business through offseason workouts and training camp, working harder than ever. Since the preseason, James has shown development each and every week as a player. James has shown substantial improvement as a run blocker and made very veteran-savvy moves consistently that help Ben Roethlisberger immensely. Jesse James is also in much better shape this season compared to last year and has filled out his frame nicely.
Heath Miller had always been Big Ben’s trusted target over the duo’s 10 years of playing together. While James has a long way to go before he becomes another Heath Miller, he has already began to become a reliable target for Roethlisberger, totaling 8 receptions for 60 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets through the first two games. These numbers won’t blow anyone away, but what James is doing for the Steelers goes far beyond the stats. He is creating opportunities for an offense that needs weapons in the passing game that are not named Antonio Brown. Through the first two games, James has been a go-to target for Roethlisberger in the redzone, an indication that the team is trying to utilize James’s 6’7″ frame and create mismatches where it counts the most. Two games into the post-Heath Miller era, James has began to make his mark on offense in a similar way as Miller. On pivotal 3rd-down plays, Roethlisberger has looked for James to get the easy check-down reception for the 1st down, much like what he would do with his trusty target Heath Miller.
Jesse James is not Heath Miller. But few players are.
Heath Miller was the greatest tight end in franchise history and just as it always is with “greatest players in franchise history”, it is hard to say if another player of that caliber will come around anytime soon. However, the Steelers don’t need that kind of player for their offense to click. They just need James to continue to improve each week and continue to be a steady presence for their future Hall of Fame quarterback.
James’s biggest knock as a player coming out of college and even through his rookie season was his inconsistency as a blocker, both in running and passing situations. These concerns seem to be disappearing, though, as he is now seen pushing players downfield and making crucial blocks for DeAngelo Williams to run through. His pass blocking remains a work in progress, but working with the other linemen like Marcus Gilbert (one of the best right tackles in the game) has helped in that development.
James has had pressure on him all season and that pressure only rose further when Green became unavailable to play. That is a lot for a 22-year old player to handle but he answered the call better than most expected. James has begun putting to rest questions like “What if Ladarius Green is out for most or all of the season?” Or “What if Ladarius Green never plays a down for the Steelers and we have no one?”
There is no denying that Green is the superior athlete and a much more refined pass-catcher. But to be honest, there have been times while I have been watching the games where I forgot that Green was even on the roster because of the confident presence that James has brought to the table. James can catch and block, making him the all-around tight end. It is still early to say what type of player James will be in the long-run.
It might not be Heath Miller.
But it will be Jesse James. And that is perfectly fine with me.