Ocho Cinco vs. 85: Nate doing more

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You generally can't determine much about two football teams by comparing their Ocho Cincos, but in the case of the teams to meet Sunday along Cincinnati's riverfront, it's actually rather instructive.

Before this summer, when Chad Johnson formally converted the 8 and the 5 on his uniform top into his official surname, Ocho Cinco, he not only led the NFL in bombast but also was conspicuous among its richly talented wideouts in several relevant attributes -- deep speed, elusiveness, quickness out of his cuts, etc.

Ocho Cinco speculated via conference call yesterday that his production has dropped like the stock market this fall due in no small part to a previously stated preference to see what his 85 looked like in another city's color scheme. Whether that's pure fantasy or flinty reality, the receiver formerly known as Chad Johnson has all of 19 catches through the Bengals' first six losses, which is part of why there has been no interruption by a victory this fall.

Ocho Cinco's averaging 11.4 yards per catch, 36 yards per game, and hasn't caught a pass longer than 22. Infamous for his elaborate post-touchdown choreography, Chad has danced less this fall than Warren Sapp and scored only one more touchdown.

Which brings us in a seriously roundabout way to Nate Washington, who somehow retains his surname despite wearing 85 as the Steelers' third wideout, who averages 12.9 yards per catch, and who in Pittsburgh's previous public appearance scalded Jacksonville corner William James for a 48-yard touchdown to help ignite the Steelers' fourth victory in five tries. That was 11 days ago, but Washington flying free 20 yards behind James somehow remains fresh, as do the rest of his career-high six catches that night.

"Doesn't matter how much you beat them by," Washington said after practice yesterday, "just so long as you get the job done."

Slowly and carefully and sometimes by jarring acceleration and/or excessive celebration, Washington has gotten things done in this Steelers offense since he dodged the 2005 draft and walked inside 3400 South Water St. as a free agent out of Tiffin. No one slapped him on the back and said they remembered him lighting it up against Edinboro and Alma College, or that they were proud to pull on the same uniform as a fella who held eight Tiffin records. Eight Tiffin records? Sounded like a jewelry collection.

All he had to prove was everything.

"I told him all he had to do was be consistent week to week, and that in this offense, you're not going to get that many opportunities," Hines Ward said of his team's Ocho Cinco. "He definitely has the talent. He's made the most of his opportunities. I told him, 'Don't worry about contract, don't worry about this, don't worry about that, just play.' All the rewards will come when we win."

Washington's first professional catch sustained a critical drive in the AFC championship game in Denver that season, so he has never exactly been inconspicuous around here. But at the same time, his employer has rarely missed an opportunity to upgrade the wideout inventory. The Steelers drafted Santonio Holmes with the first pick three months later. Drafted Willie Reid two rounds after that. Drafted Dallas Baker the following spring. Drafted Limas Sweed in the second round of the most recent draft. Of those, only Holmes has surpassed Washington on the depth chart. Sweed will likely appear for the first time in uniform Sunday. Reid and Fred Gibson, a fourth-round pick in '05, were busts.

"I've made a whole lot of progress, but I'm still not in a place where I want to be," said Washington, who signed a one-year deal this summer for $1.4 million. "A lot of things have happened since I first set foot in this locker room in that first minicamp. It's been a long road, but it's been a steady journey."

As a third wideout and often merely a fourth option behind Ward, Holmes and tight end Heath Miller, Washington's effectiveness and potential remain hard to quantify. His 15.5 yards per catch a year ago were second to only Holmes, but he has not exactly been the focus of opposing defenses.

His 10th career touchdown, the 48-yarder at Jacksonville, illustrates the analytical difficulty. Ward and Washington had gone to Ben Roethlisberger on the sideline and guessed that a pump fake might spring somebody deep, and Roethlisberger signaled Washington at the line of scrimmage early in the second period that first-and-10 at the Jaguars' 48 was the time.

"They'd been playing us real tight," Ward said. "That's why [James] bit on it so hard."

That might be why, but it also might be why James has played for three NFL teams and been released by a fourth.

Something more defining about Washington could become evident Sunday against the Bengals, who have all of five sacks in six games and against whom opposing offenses have converted 16 of the last 29 third-down opportunities. Offensive opportunities could be numerous, and Washington sure wouldn't mind a deep ball or two to clutch for some family coming down from Toledo and even for Cincy's Ocho Cinco.

"Chad's a great player; I look up to him," Washington said. "He always gives you something to look forward to. I know him a little bit, and I consider him one of the best."

That's the destination point, Washington hopes, for the steady journey of Pittsburgh's Ocho Cinco.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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