Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James became a fan favorite the moment the nearby NFL franchise drafted him. Born in McKeesport, PA, James grew up only a short 30 minute drive down PA-885 from the city he currently calls home. But the local product has been more than a mere feel good story for the Steelers this season — he’s playing a vital role in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl push.
James’ rookie season came without much fanfare; playing in only eight games, the 6-foot-7 tight end recorded just as many catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. That’s not to say James couldn’t keep up at football’s premier level — he was stuck playing behind Steelers legend Heath Miller in what would be his final season. Miller’s retirement presented the team a new challenge: fill the shoes of arguably the best tight end in franchise history. Pittsburgh began that quest by signing former Chargers tight end Ladarius Green to a four year, $20 million contract to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a trustworthy new target. But an ankle injury suffered prior to the season relegated Green to the physically unable to perform list until his activation on Nov. 12. This meant “The Outlaw” as James is favorably referred to as the leading candidate to fill the void.
He did so marvelously.
— Onward State (@OnwardState) December 25, 2016
Plays like this Saquon Barkley-esque leap became commonplace for Pittsburgh’s new secret weapon as he enjoyed an expedited growing phase in being thrust into a starting role. His 2016 regular season numbers aren’t eye-popping by any stretch of the imagination — James finished the season with 39 catches for 338 yards and three touchdowns — but his presence is now an integral part of Pittsburgh’s journey through the playoffs.
The spotlight suits James quite well, and he’s coming off the biggest game of his career that came under the brightest lights. In the Steelers’ Divisional Round matchup with Kansas City, James posted a career high 83 yards on five receptions, and while he didn’t reach the end zone, he helped put the Steelers in positions to put up points. He played the role of setup man, and he performed admirably. With Ladarius Green still out after suffering a concussion against Cincinnati on Dec. 18, James will be leaned on heavily against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.
James didn’t reveal much about his mindset after beating the Chiefs. He said what’s on the minds of likely every player in that locker room as they prepare for the biggest game of the season thus far. “I was able to come up for the offense,” James said after the game. “I couldn’t be happier to play another week. We’re just fighting for the next game.”
James and the Steelers face Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday at 6:40 p.m. in Foxboro.