In front of nearly 80 thousand fans at FedEx Field, and millions more watching the prime-time game on television, quarterback Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins weren’t just taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night. With the eyes of the football world upon them, they faced their first major audition on a national stage.
For Cousins, entering his fifth year in the league, it was a chance to demonstrate that he can consistently lead a team. His first salvo in the battle to earn the lucrative contract he feels he deserves. His first shot to stake his claim as one of the league’s best at the all-important quarterback position.
For the Redskins, it was a chance to prove the doubters wrong. An opportunity to show that last year’s NFC East winning campaign was no fluke. That the team had not only grown, but could hang with the best teams in the National Football League.
It was an audition that they failed in spectacular fashion. Out-coached and out-performed in every phase of the game, the Redskins fell to the Steelers by a score of 38-16, moving to 2 and 15 in their last 17 Monday Night Football appearances.
Washington’s offense appeared off to a fast start, marching into enemy territory on each of their first three drives. Unable to capitalize on good field position, those drives would only yield six points from two field goals. The team would not score again in the first half.
With their offense off-balance for most of the game, it was the Redskins’ running game that suffered most of all. Washington’s running backs combined for a meager 47 yards on 11 attempts, with RB Chris Thompson adding the team’s only touchdown on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter. By the end of the night, the Redskins had rushed just 12 times, compared to a whopping 43 passing attempts.
“You know we get a little bit too giddy sometimes with the weapons we have,” Head Coach Jay Gruden said. “You forget about the bread and butter of the team. It needs to be the running game. We got to make sure we stay balanced and I think that’s my fault.”
While poor play-calling might be chiefly responsible for the running game’s struggles, the offensive line’s penalty-filled night certainly didn’t help. Despite giving up just two QB hits and zero sacks, six of Washington’s seven offensive penalties came from the O-Line. The seventh was a rare false start on running back Matt Jones.
Finally, a good chunk of the responsibility for the offense’s woeful night must rest at Cousins’ feet. While the QB finished 30 of 43 for 329 yards, he tossed two interceptions and failed to throw a touchdown.
“(The Steelers) were doing a great job of dropping into their spots and reading my eyes,” Cousins told Larry Michael and Sonny Jurgensen after the game. “We just had a couple of good opporunities…that’s where it’s disappointing.”
Where Washington’s offense failed to get going, their defense initially started strong. Forcing a punt on the Steelers’ first drive, the Redskins followed it up with an interception by cornerback Bashaud Breeland at Pittsburgh’s 37-yard line. After that point the Steelers would have only two drives not end in points: a third quarter punt, and their “victory formation” kneel-down to end the game.
For Breeland, however, the night was all downhill after the first quarter interception. The third-year defensive back frequently found himself matched up with Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown. Brown, who many consider the best receiver in the league, burned Breeland for two touchdowns on the night.
“Things were going tit for tat. I can’t hang my head over it.” Breeland said to reporters after the game. “All I can do is do better…that was just my play that I missed. There’s nothing more I can say about that play.”
Breeland struggled at times against the run as well, missing several key tackles. On one such play he would have stopped Pittsburgh running back DeAngelo Williams’ first touchdown run at the line of scrimmage, but failed to make the tackle. Defending the run proved to be Washington’s biggest weakness with Williams rushing for 143 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
Williams, filling in for the Steeler’s suspended starting running back Le’veon Bell, is 35-years-old.
“If we don’t change nothing, we don’t have to worry about January football,” defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois told reporters after the game. “We have to learn how to turn an offense one-dimensional. It’s a must.”
Additionally, the defensive line struggled all night to create pressure on the passer. Sacked just once, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Rothlisberger finished 27 of 37, for 300 yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception.
In a bleak night all-around, wide receiver DeSean Jackson’s performance served as a much-needed bright spot for the offense. Utilized more than his typical deep threat role, he was targeted mostly in the intermediate passing game. The speedy receiver finished with 6 receptions for 102 yards.
On the other side of the ball, all eyes were on newly-signed cornerback Josh Norman. Norman finished as the Redskin’s third-highest graded defensive player for the game, while holding Antonio Brown catch-less on two targets. His night was not without scrutiny, though, due to his usage in defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s game plan.
Coming into the night, many thought he would “shadow” Antonio Brown, covering him on either side of the field. This would not be the case, with Norman instead staying on the defense’s left side.
Elite cornerbacks shadowing receivers is fairly commonplace in the NFL today, and as such, Washington’s strategy has been heavily criticized. With the Redskins facing another elite receiver in Dallas’ Dez Bryant this Sunday, and the Giants’ rising star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. a week later, it will be interesting to see if their plan changes.