“We have a philosophy of give us a blade of grass to defend, and we will defend it…” — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin
When the Pittsburgh Steelers last traveled to Washington, it was a Presidential election year (1988,) their ownership was in transition (Art Rooney Sr. had just passed away), Sonny Jergenson was still doing play-by-play in Washington, they squared off against a Redskins team led by an African-American quarterback and their normally automatic place kicker suffered a missed extra point.
- The similarities, however, end there.
Going into the game, both the Steelers and Redskins had compiled 5-2 records against inferior opponents. Pittsburgh had struggled mightily against NFC East teams, while the Redskins, had been looking at this game for weeks as their “statement game.”
Which Team Is Making a Statement on Monday Night Football?
The Steelers defense had a statement of its own to make.
Mike Tomlin began by going for the surprise on-sides kick to open the game. The Steelers completely botched the execution spotting the Redskins excellent field position to start the game (you really didn’t think Bob Ligashesky’s special teams were capable of pulling this off, did you?)
- It didn’t matter. You can take such risks when you field the kind of defense that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau have put together.
Both on that and the ensuring series where Pittsburgh’s offense turned the ball over deep in Redskin territory, the Steelers defense mitigated, what for most teams would have been a 14 point gift to the opposition, to a mere 6 point deficit.
- In the first quarter Washington showed a lot of poise.
Its players were pumped and looked ready for PrimeTime. Greg Blanche’s defense was swarming, and while the Redskins offense wasn’t moving the chains very well, their offensive line was keeping Jason Campbell clean, Clinton Portis ripped off a 22 yard run, the longest against the Steelers to date, and the fans at FedEx field were making themselves heard.
Perhaps its only fitting then that the first play of the second quarter saw the Redskins begin with an attempt to convert a 3rd and 6 and ended when James Farrior and Sliverback decided to meet up 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Campbell in between….
- And that set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Redskins offense is not a dominate unit yet, but it is clearly on the rise. Jason Campbell looks like he will justify Joe Gibbs decision to draft him. Jim Zorn is either providing evidence that Daniel Snyder really is turning over a new leaf or he’s the living embodiment of the infallibility of the law of averages. Either way, he looks to be one NFL’s bright young minds. Clinton Portis has simply been running roughshod over everything and everybody that has tried to slow him down, let alone stand in his way.
- But none of that mattered.
Three statistics tell the story:
- The Steelers picked off Jason Campbell for the first time in 271 passes
- James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Nick Eason, Aaron Smith and James Harrison sacked Jason Campbell 7 times
- If you take away his one 22 yard burst, the Steeler held Clinton Portis to 2.4 yards a carry
Jim Zorn’s game plan itself betrays the fact the he himself must have been trying to make a statement. But for all of his boldness and budding wisdom, he was no match for Dick LeBeau’s tried and tested genius. Washington Post reporter Jason LaCafora couldn’t have put it any better:
After weeks of more conventional play-calling, riding the running game and the occasional deep pass to a 6-2 record, Zorn gambled more often with protection in his Monday Night Football debut as head coach, and quarterback Jason Campbell often paid the price….
The interplay between Zorn and LeBeau – an up-and-coming play caller against a defensive mastermind – was the preeminent backdrop for the game, and by early in the second half merely keeping Campbell upright proved difficult as the Steelers delivered at least one crushing hit on drive after drive.
If Zorn’s plan was to make a statement, credit him for sticking to his guns.
After a blocked punt rejuvenated the Steelers offense (not to mention giving them a short field) the Steelers went up 10-6, and the Redskins took over at their 32 after the ensuing kick off with :27 seconds remaining. Not content to take a knee, Zorn called a pass play, and LaMarr Woodley rewarded his courage by sacking Campbell for a five yard loss.
- You can walk the walk, but you’d better be ready to talk the talk.
Indeed, the Washington Post’s lead articles were titled “Reality Hits Hard,” “In Zorn-LeBeau Chess Match, Campbell Pays the Price,” and “All Burgundy, Like a Bruise.”
Steelers Defense Shines
On a night where the Steelers offense AGAIN struggled to find its way, Pittsburgh’s defense responded in kind, by stepping it up again. The Steelers offensive difficulties have been discussed in Steel Curtain Rising before, and another installment is due soon.
But Monday night was the defense’s night.
- The Steelers defense in 2007 started the season strong, only to fade as the season progressed.
This year the Steelers defense started off playing well, but it appears to be getting better with each game. Third downs are ending in sacks. The secondary is neutralizing marquee receivers. They are imposing their will on elite running backs and shutting down vaunted running games. Steeler linebackers are terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.
With eight games to go, the “p” word is not yet permissible in Steelers Nation, let alone the initials “L. T.” Nonetheless, if the Steelers are to have a shot at making a serious run in January, they will have to protect their quarterback better, and the offense must find consistency.
- But offense only wins games. Defense wins championships.
If the offense’s ability to win games for the Steelers remains a concern, the 23-6 smashing of the Redskins in their own backyard reveals that Steelers defense has a chance to become something truly special.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to comment and be sure to check back with Steel Curtain Rising over the weekend for “Steelers vs. Redskins, the Rivalry that Should Have Been,” as well as a further look at the Steelers situation on offense.