The Steelers relied upon rookies throughout the 2018 season, from the opener in Cleveland through the finale against Cincinnati.
And the rookies kept responding, from the pass safety Terrell Edmunds knocked down against the Browns to the one wide receiver James Washington caught against the Bengals.
Washington’s 47-yard grab in the third quarter of the rematch against Cincinnati was particularly significant in the wake of the pass he didn’t catch after making an ill-advised dive on Nov. 25 in Denver.
“His big catch down the sideline, the big play that he had, was the exact same call that he missed in Denver, the exact same call,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger noted. “We’re on the sideline and (offensive coordinator) Randy (Fichtner) said, ‘Who do you want, JuJu (Smith-Schuster) or James?’ I said, ‘I want James.’ And he came in the huddle and I said, ‘Hey we’re going to call the same thing that we did in Denver, I want you to make the play,’ and he did.
“I’m so proud of him.”
Washington, a second-round pick from Oklahoma State, experienced growing pains along the way but never shied away despite twice being deactivated on game day. He finished with 16 receptions for 247 yards and a touchdown in 14 games. The 47-yard effort against the Bengals was Washington’s longest reception of the season.
Fifth-round pick Jaylen Samuels, a running back from North Carolina State, also started slowly but finished strong.
Samuels didn’t dress until the third game of the season on Sept. 24 at Tampa and didn’t carry the ball until Oct. 28 against Cleveland. But with starter James Conner injured and unavailable on Dec. 16 against New England, Samuels responded with 172 combined yards (142 on 19 carries and 30 on two receptions) in a 17-10 victory.
Samuels wound up with 256 rushing yards and a 4.6 average per carry and also caught 26 passes for 199 yards for the season. Three of receptions went for touchdowns.
Edmunds, the Steelers’ No. 1 pick out of Virginia Tech, didn’t fill the stat sheet but devoured snaps. He started 15 games, appeared in all 16 and ended up playing 966 defensive snaps.
Edmunds played 100 percent of the defensive snaps in 10 of 16 games on the way to collecting a sack, an interception, a fumble recovery, four passes defensed and 72 tackles (52 solo).
“I just gotta keep on pushing, keep that same drive, that same determination throughout the whole season, keep that same hunger, don’t get comfortable and just keep on working,” he said. “This was my first experience at it, first time being around all the pros, just learning how they do things, how they move, you could say. Being out there, being in game play, getting more snaps under your belt, getting more comfortable out there, making more plays and just being around the ball more, that definitely helps.
“Now, just continuing to next year, that feeling that you’ve already been through that, just gotta keep progressing from there, just take it to that next level.”
Other contributions by rookies included fourth-round pick Chukwuma Okorafor, an offensive tackle from Western Michigan, getting regular work as an extra tight end in running sets, and kicker Matt McCrane making his one game with the Steelers count to the tune of three field goals and an extra point when Chris Boswell couldn’t play in the finale against the Bengals.
One thing the rookie class didn’t get to experience was a playoff game.
“Came up short, not where we want to be right now,” Edmunds acknowledged. “Just gotta build off of it, come out next year stronger.”