By Will Graves
December 3, 2015
In this Nov. 8, 2015 file photo Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James (81) plays in an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders in Pittsburgh. James is poised to fill in if Steelers tight end Heath Miller's rib injury does not improve. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jesse James can admit it now. The first few months of his NFL career were just kind of weird.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rookie tight end did everything that was asked of him during the week. Then gameday would arrive and he would find himself on the inactive list, wearing sweats instead of his No. 81 jersey. The last time that happened, James was a freshman at South Allegheny High a short 40-minute drive south of Heinz Field.
Standing around on the sideline, adrenaline pumping with nowhere to go, took some getting used to.
''I tried to make it into a good thing,'' James said.
Don't get James wrong, he totally understood. When you're a rookie playing behind veterans Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, there isn't a lot of playing time to go around. So the fifth-round pick basically attached himself to tight ends coach James Daniel and soaked up whatever wisdom Miller and Spaeth threw his way.
''He was too heavy when he got here,'' offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. ''He got himself in really good shape now. He is running faster. He has much better stamina. He is hanging around two of the couple best teachers from a player standpoint in Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, so if you just pay attention to what they are doing, you have a chance.''
The raw 6-foot-7 James had never been on a team where he wasn't the best player at his position, so precocious at Penn State that he surprisingly declared for the draft before his 21st birthday. The Steelers viewed him as a bit of a project with hands made for catching but not quite so trustworthy when required to fend off defensive ends or linebackers.
''In our tight ends room, we pride ourselves on being able to block,'' James said. ''Obviously I had room for growth there.''
When an injury to Matt Spaeth provided James with playing time last month, James responded by showing flashes of why Pittsburgh took a flier on him in the first place, catching a nifty 4-yard lob from Ben Roethlisberger for his first NFL touchdown against Oakland on Nov. 8 and adding a two-point conversion last week in a loss to Seattle.
With Miller dealing with a rib issue that could prevent him from facing Indianapolis (6-5) on Sunday, James could be in line for his first start. James figures anything he can contribute is a direct result of Miller and Spaeth's mentorship.
''Heath helps me every step of the way,'' James said. ''They both helped prepare me. I learn a lot just by watching them and the way they go about the week.''
Particularly in the film room, where Miller and Spaeth's exhaustive attention to detail was an eye opener.
''They really take a lot of time going over their notes and talking through different looks and different game-plan things,'' James said.
Their enthusiasm for the minutiae of the position made James a convert. The proof came during a brief stretch in the fourth quarter against Oakland.
Split out wide right alongside wide receiver Martavis Bryant, James expertly tied up Raiders safety Larry Asante, giving Bryant enough room to turn a screen into a 14-yard touchdown.
When Oakland fumbled the ensuing kickoff, the Steelers took over deep in Raiders territory. On second-and-goal from the 4, James lined up in a three-point stance on the left side of the offensive line, with Miller to his left. On the snap, James ran right at Oakland linebacker Curtis Lofton, who briefly ignored James to provide double coverage on Miller. James took a hard step left then darted to his right, spinning Lofton around. James was wide open at the back of the end zone when he caught his first NFL pass, a touchdown that gave the Steelers a 35-21 lead.
James hardly looked overwhelmed by the moment. He simply dropped the ball and looked into the sea of black-and-gold in the stands, needing one of the equipment managers to later go and secure it for a keepsake.
The moment made the trying days of training camp a distant memory. James dropped a pair of easily catchable passes in the Hall of Fame Game against Minnesota then seemed to spend weeks trying to overcome it.
''The quarterbacks never lost confidence in me,'' he said. ''Even with that first bad preseason game, they were all behind me. They knew what I was capable of and I got through it.''
NOTES: LB Ryan Shazier practiced on Thursday, four days after he sustained a concussion against Seattle. Shazier completed the league's concussion protocol and said he's not worried about returning to the field so quickly even though he admits he briefly lost consciousness. ... Roethlisberger practiced for a second straight day after completing the concussion protocol. S Will Allen (ankle) and LB Sean Spence (hamstring) did not practice Thursday. Spaeth (knee) and Bryant (hip) were limited.
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