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Steelers Analysis

Why Darnell Washington is Steelers’ X-Factor vs. 49ers



Steelers TE Darnell Washington
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Darnell Washington at practice, Aug. 17, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Sunday will be the very first game that Darnell Washington will play in the NFL. The 6-foot-7 tight end impressed throughout training camp as a massive pass catcher who could become a ferocious blocker. But he is a bit anxious to play in his first NFL game against a team that boasts great players up and down their lineup.

“I’m just very anxious, I don’t want to mess up,” Washington said. “It’s a little different for me. This isn’t preseason. So, it’s like regular season, Week 1, and I’m going up against the best of the best each week.”

However, the Steelers might need Darnell Washington to play a significant role immediately. If Nick Bosa plays, the big tight end will undoubtedly be tasked with helping the Steelers tackles in pass protection. In the run game, if the 49ers are going to blitz so much, the Steelers might want to attack that by running into the teeth of it and using their aggressiveness against them.

So, could the first few plays showcase 12 personnel for the Steelers? Washington thinks there is a “decent chance” of that happening because of the numbers game the 49ers like to play. Without DeMeco Ryans, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will try to mix some things up and give them new looks on top of what was already on tape a year ago.

Communication will be paramount, but protecting Kenny Pickett will be even more critical for the Steelers. Washington seems to factor into the equation likely. If he helps on the edge, guys like Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead can be handled a little easier by the interior pressure and the numbers game. For the offense, 12 personnel could be a bit of a base for them.

“I feel like this is all going to be based on what they come out in,” Washington said. “In the NFL, it’s whatever they’re calling that day. So, whatever they’re calling, it’s play-dependent.”

Further questioned is when Washington revealed he believes 12 personnel could be likely. Since San Francisco does so many things, such as double barrel blitzes, overload blitzes, and exotic stunts, communication and the numbers game take precedence. Otherwise, there could be free rushers that can tee off on Pickett all day. Even if the Steelers’ offensive line is improved from a year ago, and Washington aids them in that fight, it will be hard to slow down all the pass rushers with the blitzes, let alone when rushing four.

“I feel like communication is important every week but this week it really is,” center Mason Cole said. “They do so many things, they rush double A-gap, overload from the slot, disguise the safety, it’s all different out of a lot of formations. They can beat you with four, too. It’s a challenge.”

Washington can only do so much as a tight end. Even though he is a great blocker, Bosa should still beat him. But he can help Dan Moore Jr. or Chuks Okorafor, depending on the side Bosa is on during a given play. The tight ends could even switch the strength side and do many other things to help with the numbers game. Matt Canada’s motions with trades and jet motion seem to be important window dressing that can help identify or shift numbers in the box. Darnell Washington will be a key factor in a lot of those motions and how San Francisco defends the Steelers.