As the Washington Redskins took the field on Monday night, their challenges were obvious. Head Coach Jim Zorn knew it would be difficult to make plays on the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, the question was, could the Redskins counter the Steelers' defensive pressure by making enough plays to help the Redskins' defense.
The answer was NO, they couldn't.
The Steelers put together pressure packages that the Redskins' offense could not decipher. The league's No. 1 defense showed why they're so good. Speed, power, and the ability to confuse are what makes the Steelers' defense what it is. And make no mistake about it, the Steelers' defense is VERY GOOD.
Redskins' quarterback Jason Campbell has been one of the league's most improved players through eight games this season. Completing over 63 percent of his passes on the season, and protecting the ball better than ANY other starting quarterback in the NFL, Campbell was harassed, hit, pushed, and sacked into his first TWO interceptions of the season.
The NFL's best running back this season, Redskins' Clinton Portis, was held to only 51 yards rushing. He had been averaged over 100 yards per game prior to the Steelers' visit to Washington. This fact alone played a major role in Campbell's struggles.
Did Zorn give up on the run too early?
I don't think so. Portis only had 13 carries, the Redskins only ran the ball 15 times, with 45 pass attempts. Not the balance this offense needs to succeed, but of those 15 rushing plays, eight were for three yards or less. The Redskins ran 29 plays in the fourth quarter, when the game was already largely out of hand.
If one takes away the imbalance of playing "catch-up" in the fourth quarter, the breakdown is 15 of 36 plays were runs, not the run-heavy ratio the Redskins have had in recent games, but not an entirely horrible balance either.
While the Redskins' defense played well statistically, they again failed to make "game-changing" plays. Cornerback Carlos Rogers dropped an easy interception that likely would have been an easy touchdown, a sight that has become all too familiar to Redskins fans.
The Steelers held the special-teams key as well, blocking a punt late in the second quarter. The Steelers were able to convert the resulting short field into a touchdown, a series of events that was likely the turning point of the game.
The Redskins now enter their bye week, and it is badly needed. Over the past three weeks, the Redskins have had as many as a DOZEN starters sitting out practice throughout the week nursing injuries. They have already played 14 games this season and have been "going at it" longer than any other team in the NFL, with an early start to training camp, and the bye week coming after the ninth game of the regular season.
There is much to be done for Jim Zorn and the Redskins. Nothing is more critical than getting the team healthy, however. Standout cornerback Shawn Springs missed his third straight game Monday night and was sorely missed. He should be back to face the Dallas Cowboys in a critical Sunday Night NFC East matchup following the week off.
Defensive end Jason Taylor should also return, along with backup running back Ladell Betts.
This game was considered by many to be an important game for both teams. But the reality is that this game will have little effect in the hunt for an NFC playoff appearance. It may well turn out to be one of the keys to the Redskins' season, however.
Unlike any other game this season, including their other two losses, to the New York Giants and St. Louis Rams, the Redskins were dominated at the line of scrimmage by the opposing defense. The Steelers were able to create pressure on Campbell and slow down Portis enough to force the Redskins out of their comfort zone.
In the loss to the Giants, this was not the case, the Redskins simply couldn't complete the plays that were available. In the loss to the Rams, Redskins' turnovers killed two promising drives, and one directly resulted in a touchdown, while the Redskins dominated every other statistical category.
The Steelers' simply left little opportunity for the Redskins to make plays. There is no question the Redskins have a good football team, and now they Zorn's ability to manage his team's injuries, handle his roster efficiently, and motivate his players, which will be the keys to the Redskins' success, or lack there of, in the second half of the season.
The Redskins may have been better served if the bye had a week earlier. But the reality is that all teams are feeling the pain of a tough and physical football season. I noticed a little too much talk from players during interviews this past week that seemed to consistently include a mention of the upcoming bye week. Player after player answered whatever the question was, and added, of their own volition, that the bye was next.
I do not think the Redskins were "looking past" the Steelers. I do think the Redskins, as a team, are worn out, physically and emotionally, and it showed against the best defense in football.
Keep your chins up, Redskins. Seven more games to accomplish all of what no one thought you could are ahead. Three home games, all critical divisional matchups, and four road games await you after the bye. Your goals are still within reach.
To all Redskins fans, not to worry, Zorn, Blache, and the veteran leaders on this team are more than capable of pulling together and making a run, not only at the playoffs, but a division championship.
With home games against the Cowboys, Eagles, and Giants, the Redskins have the rest of their season in their hands. And most of these men have better hands than Carlos Rogers.