What Can We Learn from the Redskins' Games Against the Steelers and the Ravens?
As I wrote in the previous article, Redskin fans have the benefit, going into this week's NFC and AFC Conference Championships, of having seen the 'Skins play all four of the teams still vying for a chance to play in the Super Bowl.
The Redskins came into the Steelers game riding on a high of good will that had arisen from a surprising start of 6-2 under new coach Jim Zorn. The sky seemed to be the limit.
But then the Steelers came to Washington DC, along with half of their fans it seemed, and the Redskins' season spiraled out of control from there. They were 2-6 in the second half of the season.
The Steelers seemed to sweep through DC like Sherman's Army swept through Atlanta. They left the Redskins and their fans demoralized. At times it seemed that there were more Steeler fans at Fed Ex than there were Redskin fans. I'd never seen anything like it.
The final score was 23-6, but it was actually a great defensive battle for the most part.
The Redskins' defense played well. They shut down the Steeler running game, holding them to a total of 64 yards on the day.
The Steelers didn't have a great day passing the ball either. Of their 172 passing yards, 50 came on one play. But what a back-breaking play it was.
The Redskins had held Ben Roethlisberger to only five completions out of 17 attempts in the first half for only 50 yards. They had intercepted him one time on a deflected pass that was caught by Cornelius Griffin.
In fact, the 'Skins were leading at the end of the first quarter 6-0. Two field goals had been set up by that interception and by recovering an onside kick at at the beginning of the game.
The problem then, as it had been last year and remained through most of this season, was an inability to get the ball into the end zone from the red zone. They left points on the field.
The fact is, though, that the Steelers impressively smothered the Redskin offense. The 'Skins didn't get a third down conversion until late in the 3rd Quarter.
Jason Campbell, who had finished the first half of the season without an interception, threw two in this game. Clinton Portis, who had rushed for over 120 yards in every game since Game Three, couldn't find a hole to run through.
So, the Redskins and Steelers both played great defense in this game. The difference was big plays. And that's all it took to make this game seem like a lopsided win for the Steelers.
In the second quarter, the Steelers blocked a punt and recovered the ball on the 13-yard line. It looked like the Redskins were going to hold, but Roethlisberger connected with Hines Ward on a 3rd-and-12 pass play that went for 14 yards. Roethlisberger went up the gut for a TD on the next play and re-injured his shoulder.
So, the Redskins were down 10-6 at halftime, but they had played well. And it was doubtful that Roethlisberger would play in the second half.
But it was time for the return of a native son, Byron Leftwich, who had grown up in Washington DC. Leftwich connected with Nate Washington on a huge 50-yard pass play to begin the second half. That set up a score to make it 17-6, and the Steelers never looked back.
I think everyone realized after this game that the Redskins simply were not able to move the ball well enough against an elite defense like that of the Steelers. No one could really blame the Redskins' defense for this loss.
Four weeks later, the Redskins faced a very similar opponent when they traveled to play the Baltimore Ravens. By this point, the season was coming unglued for the Redskins. After losing to the Steelers, the Redskins lost to the Cowboys and the Giants, though they did win against Seattle.
But this time, the Ravens defense was so dominating that it took charge of the game right from the beginning. Jason Campbell was hit by Terrell Suggs as he was throwing on the third play of the game and it was intercepted by Ed Reed.
On the third possession of the game, Ed Reed knocked the ball out of Clinton Portis' hands, recovered it, and ran it in for a touchdown. Suddenly, the Ravens were up 14-0, and the Redskins did not recover until the fourth quarter.
In the fourth quarter, the Redskins made it close when their D stepped up, too. LaRon Landry intercepted a pass that set up a field goal. And DeAngelo Hall picked up a fumble forced by Landry that set up a touchdown pass to Randle El.
But the Ravens' running attack took the advantage again with an 83-yard drive. Le'Ron McClain ran 10 times for 43 yards. Then, when it was least expected, Flacco threw a 28-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason.
The Redskins did not give up, and were on the move again, when Ed Reed picked off another pass with just 1:53 left in the game. The final score was 24-10.
This was a typical Ravens game with a strong running game, some effectively-timed surprise play-action passes, and an overwhelming defense led by Ed Reed.
If the Redskins learned in the first half of the season that they have the ability to compete with the best teams, they learned in the second half of the season that their offensive line is overmatched against the elite defenses of the NFL.
In this game, in fact, the Ravens added injury to insult when they ended the seasons of both of the Redskins' starting tackles, Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels. Samuels suffered a torn-triceps that he'll spend the entire off-season trying to recover from.
We learned again in these two games against the Steelers and the Ravens that outstanding defenses are invaluable. Most of the time, defenses win championships.
The Steelers battling the Ravens for the AFC Championship may prove to be the real Super Bowl this year. Neither offense is prolific. The key should prove to be who makes the least errors and who, if anyone, gets off just one or two big plays.
The AFC champion should beat whoever the NFC puts up there. But anything can happen on any given Sunday. The Eagles have a great defense and are capable of putting together some big plays especially if Brian Westbrook is healthy.
The real wild "Card" (pardon the pun) in all of this is the surprising Arizona Cardinals. Of these four teams, they are the one team with an outstanding offense. Defenses win championships most of the time. The Eagles should stop the Cardinals and go to the Super Bowl.
If they surprise us and get past the Eagles, the Ravens or Steelers should be able to stop the Cardinals' attack. But that's why they play the games. Can the Cardinals' passing attack find some holes in these terrific defenses?
Any way you look at it, we're in for two more outstanding weeks of NFL football.
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