Nate the Great a game-day active

LATROBE – Nate Washington started at flanker the first preseason game and dropped the only pass that hit him in the hands. He posted bubkus on the stat sheet, and after the game Coach Bill Cowher told him as much.

"He talked a little bit," Nate Washington said. "If he didn't say anything I'd be kind of worried."

Washington filled in again for Hines Ward this past Saturday night, but this time he caught three passes for 53 yards. He didn't drop anything. In fact, all of his catches went for first downs. He grabbed a pair of third-down passes and also gained 20 yards on a first-and-15 pass. Washington also ran a reverse for 20 yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers' first snap from scrimmage, and he blocked linebackers at the point of attack (see Duce Staley's 3-yard scamper around left end).

What did Cowher say to Washington after the second game?

"He just told me way to play," Washington said. "He said ‘I know it's a long road and you have a lot more to improve on.' So that's what I'm trying to do right now."

Apparently, Cowher saved his most informative remark not for Washington, but about him.

"He'll be active game day," Cowher told reporters after the game.

It wasn't much, but it was a rare promise about a backup who's yet to catch a pass in a regular-season NFL game.

And Washington's reaction to the promise?

"I don't know anything about it," he said. "One of the other reporters asked me about it after the game, but I didn't really believe it until I saw it in the paper myself."

Washington laughed at the prospect of blowing off a practice or two this week. And since he's obviously one of the coach's favorites, what position will he tell Cowher he's playing next week?

"It doesn't matter to me," Washington said with a smile. "I just want to be out there."

Assuming Ward returns to active duty by opening day, and Cedrick Wilson remains the starter at split end, Washington said the No. 3 receiving position is "what we're looking at right now." And with the new no-huddle "Texas" attack the Steelers hope to use, Washington feels he'll fit right in.

"We ran a no-huddle offense in college. We never huddled," he said. "The hardest thing is getting those plays set in your head, knowing what's being called and knowing what to run."

Washington starred in the no-huddle at Tiffin, where he set eight individual receiving records. He once caught 13 passes and gained 299 yards in one game. He also caught 212 passes for 4,214 yards and 47 touchdowns at the Division Two school.

After the 2005 draft, scout Phil Kriedler hustled Washington away from the Detroit Lions and signed him as an undrafted free agent. In the end, Washington helped the Steelers win a Super Bowl. He made a key third-down reception in the AFC Championship game and also batted away a certain interception to allow the Steelers their first points at Denver.

While Washington may have displayed nerves of steel in helping the Steelers reach the Super Bowl, he displayed the opposite when given his first starting assignment in the preseason opener.

Cowher went into the game hoping Washington would show the same kind of skills against first-team defenses that he showed last preseason against backups, but Washington said nerves got the better of him.

"It affected me a little bit because I missed a couple plays that I could've made," he said. "A couple times I did some of the wrong things, even though I knew better. But I did it and I think it went with my jitters a little bit, but I was more comfortable this week."

Washington's best play in the opener was a 10-yard reverse on the Steelers' first series. This week he opened with a 20-yard reverse and the rest of his game fell into place.

Since Washington showed such a fluid and easy stride on both reverses, the question of whether he could return kicks was broached to Cowher on Saturday night. He said no, but came around to promising Washington an active spot as a receiver on game day.

"It feels good to hear that," Washington said. "But I still have a long way to go."

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