James ready to take over as Steel­ers’ top tight end

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Jesse James has pre­pared the last two off­sea­sons to be the start­ing tight end for the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers even as the team ex­plored its op­tions fol­low­ing Heath Miller’s un­ex­pected re­tire­ment in 2015. Pitts­burgh splurged in free agency a year ago, sign­ing Ladar­ius Green to a four-year deal. It lasted only one. When the Steel­ers re­leased Green in the spring, James found him­self in the spot he be­lieved he could be in all along: a starter on one of the NFL’s most po­tent of­fenses.

“I knew I had a chance to be the guy last year. Things didn’t work out for Ladar­ius early in the sea­son, so I had that op­por­tu­nity,” James said. “This sum­mer, the Steel­ers re­ally gave me a chance to come into that role, and now that’s the ex­pec­ta­tion, so that’s what I’m go­ing to do.” While Green strug­gled to stay healthy in his only sea­son in Pitts­burgh, James flour­ished. He ap­peared in all 19 games last sea­son for the AFC North cham­pi­ons, fin­ish­ing with 39 re­cep­tions for 338 yards and three touch­downs. Heady ter­ri­tory for a kid who grew up in sub­ur­ban Pitts­burgh. Yet he hardly thinks he’s ar­rived. “I’ll have to step it up and be more re­li­able and more pre­pared to help the team in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion,” James said. “I feel great and ob­vi­ously I’m in a bet­ter po­si­tion than I was last year, men­tally and phys­i­cally. I feel bet­ter about where my game’s at and what I need to do to be ready for the sea­son.”

Green, who signed a four-year, $20 mil­lion con­tract in free agency, was placed on the phys­i­cally un­able to per­form list in train­ing camp and didn’t ap­pear in a game un­til Novem­ber, the 10th week of the reg­u­lar sea­son against Dal­las. He played in five games be­fore a sea­son-end­ing con­cus­sion in week 14. The Steel­ers re­leased Green af­ter he failed his phys­i­cal in May.

The team didn’t draft or sign an­other tight end, al­low­ing James to take over the start­ing role. “It shows a lot that the coach­ing staff didn’t go out and get some­body in free agency,” James said. “They must’ve liked what they saw in those 10 games we didn’t have Ladar­ius. We have a young group, so they know what to ex­pect from us and they know we’re go­ing to grow.”

James played high school foot­ball at nearby South Al­legheny and starred in col­lege at Penn State. He grew up watch­ing Miller and the Steel­ers. James, a fifthround draft pick in 2015, spent a year un­der Miller’s tute­lage and now he leads

a group that in­cludes evolv­ing pass­catcher Xavier Grim­ble and vet­eran block­ing spe­cial­ist David John­son. The Steel­ers added of­fen­sive line­man Chris Hub­bard to the tight end group last sea­son in an ef­fort to boost the run game and cre­ate space for All-Pro run­ning back Le’Veon Bell.

The plan helped carry the Steel­ers to the AFC Cham­pi­onship game. Pitts­burgh reeled off nine straight wins and av­er­aged 144 rush­ing yards per game, up from an av­er­age of 82 yards for the first 10 games. Ex­pect to see more of the same in 2017 from James and the Steel­ers’ tight ends. “I see Jesse get­ting bet­ter each year be­cause that’s the type of player he is,” Grim­ble said.

“He’s al­ways work­ing hard and he’s re­ally good with the of­fense, es­pe­cially with an­other year un­der his belt. I would ex­pect noth­ing less than a break­out sea­son from him.” — AP

SAN FRAN­CISCO: San Fran­cisco Giants’ Bran­don Craw­ford, bot­tom, scores past Chicago Cubs catcher Will­son Con­tr­eras dur­ing the fourth in­ning of a base­ball game in San Fran­cisco, Tues­day. — AP

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