Three months after being burned by speedy Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a 38-yard touchdown pass in a 23-20 defeat, Washington has validated the Ravens’ investment of a fourth-round draft pick to acquire him via trade from the Oakland Raiders this spring.
He has established himself as a viable starting cornerback, stepping into the lineup with former Pro Bowl selection Chris McAlister out for the season with a knee injury. He leads the team with 14 pass deflections.
Washington deflected a career-high four passes in a 24-10 victory over the Washington Redskins, and might have more than one interception for the season if not for a pair of shaky hands.
"We got the guy we thought we were going to get," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He’s been tremendous. We were kidding him because we’re telling our guys, ‘Make sure you’re sprinting to the ball when it’s thrown to Fabian because he’s going to bat it down somewhere.’
"He’s dropped a few interceptions this year, but I think if he would’ve caught them he would probably be headed to the Pro Bowl. But he’s had a tremendous year for us, and he loves playing here."
Washington has answered critics who questioned his toughness and willingness to tackle in Oakland, recording 25 tackles.
And he has gambled less than usual, which led to his breakdown against Holmes when he darted for the football and missed in the first meeting at Heinz Field.
Overall, his comfort level with the Ravens’ scheme has increased markedly.
Washington has come a long way since being suspended for the season opener for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy in an offseason domestic violence incident, and missed the second game of the year with a bulging disc in his neck.
"At the time against Pittsburgh, it was my first game back and I played pretty good," Washington said. "Now, I’ve got my legs under me. I’m dealing with all of my injuries pretty well. I’m turning it on definitely at the right time."
The timing is appropriate because the Ravens will need Washington to have an especially sound game in man-to-man coverage against Holmes, one of the fastest receivers in the AFC North.
Holmes has caught 44 passes for 676 yards and three touchdowns from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and is coming off an 82-yard receiving game against the Dallas Cowboys for his fourth-highest total of the season.
"Santonio’s very fast, and he knows how to get open," Washington said. "When Ben scrambles, you always have to keep your eyes on him because he knows how to come back to the ball and just make plays."
Holmes has averaged 78 receiving yards against the Ravens in five career games and has caught five touchdown passes against them.
"He’s really fast," Ryan said. "It would be a great race between him and Fabian and Samari Rolle. It would be great to line them all up maybe in the offseason somewhere. My money would be on Fabian."
Washington has 4.29 speed in the 40-yard dash, the fastest time of any incoming rookie in the 2005 NFL draft when he was picked in the first round by the Raiders out of Nebraska.
He’ll need that speed against the Steelers, who are no longer prone to running the football. The new-look Steelers are heavily reliant on Roethlisberger’s ability to throw downfield to Holmes, Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller.
"They like to go empty," Ryan said. "When’s the last time you played Pittsburgh and they had an empty backfield?"
"They’ve got to try to do something," Washington said. "There’s no running on us, so everybody resorts to passing the ball. On the back end, we need to stay disciplined, have great technique and make plays."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.