When the Pittsburgh Steelers last faced the Washington Redskins in 2008, the folks in DC labeled it a “statement game.”
Leading a 6-2 Redskins squad, head coach Jim Zorn appeared to be establishing himself as a bright, young, offensive mind. Under his tutelage, Jason Campbell finally seemed to be hitting his stride.
- But the Steelers dispatched them 23-6 while masses of Black and Gold took over FedEx Field in a banner night for Steelers Nation.
Four years later the two teams met again, and while no one called it a “statement game,” both teams had something to prove….
Setting Up for a Shoot Out
The Washington Redskins are of course all about Robert Griffin III or RG3. Coming out of college, RG3 was touted as a defensive coordinator’s nightmare, a true, mobile quarterback who could also pass within the pocket.
Of course people have made similar claims about players like Aiki Smith, Cabe McNown, Daunte Culpepper, etc…. But RG3 did something those players never did:
- He delivered above and beyond the pre-season hype.
What would Dick LeBeau do? The legendary Steelers defensive coordinator entered the game 14-1 vs. rookie quarterbacks since his return to Pittsburgh in 2004.
But 2012 has tested LeBeau, as he defense had given up three 4th quarter leads resulting in three losses.
LeBeau’s defense held against Andy Dalton, but how would it fare against a rookie who after only 7 games is already one of the game’s most dangerous threats?
Could LeBeau’s aging defense contain the RG3 juggernaut, or would this game devolve into a “whoever has the ball last wins” contest that is too typical of today’s NFL?
The Shoot Out that Never Was…
It failed to materialize because Dick LeBeau and his counterpart Todd Haley both broke two sacrosanct two commandments that dictate success in of the modern NFL:
- Thou shalt not run
- Thou shalt not play physical defense that compromises the passing game
Fortunately, for Steelers Nation, neither LeBeau nor Haley read the updated cataclysm.
The Art of a Drop
Nothing in football frustrates more than a drop. In a word, drops….
- Convert touchdowns into field goals
- Transform 1st and 10 into a punt
- Erode momentum and stall drives
Sometimes mental lapses cause drops. Sometimes the players don’t have good hands. Sometimes drops are endemic of a larger lack of focus….
- …But sometimes defenses induce drops
In 1990 the Pittsburgh Steelers started 2-2 without scoring an offensive touchdown. During one of those victories the rival Houston Oilers and their Run’N Shoot offense couldn’t hold on to anything.
Then defensive coordinator Dave Brazil explained how Pittsburgh’s defensive backs actually allowed Houston’s receivers catch the ball early on, only to lay in the wood after. As the game progressed, Houston’s Pro Bowl quartet of receivers began dropping balls in droves.
NFL rules protecting defenseless receivers are supposed to change all of that. Yet against the Redskins the, Steelers secondary showed that you can aggressively go after receivers while staying in the rules.
- The results of LeBeau’s strategy were evident in the Redskins collective butter fingers
Numerous times Redskins dropped balls when black jerseys were barely in sight. That’s when you know the secondary has intimidated the opposing receiving corps – guys fear hits when none are imminent.
The secondary of course wasn’t solely responsible for the Steelers success, just as RG3 is not the only Redskins weapon. Pittsburgh contained one of the NFL’s most potent rushing attacks.
Alfred Morris and Darrell Young did rip off impressive runs, but they never threatened to take over the game, just as RG3 made some nice completions, but never got into a rhythm with his receivers.
Credit Dick LeBeau for his game plan. Credit his players for executing it.
Throw to Score, Run to Win
Todd Haley was hired as offensive coordinator with three purposes in mind:
- Keep Ben Roethlisberger upright
- Improve scoring, particularly in the Red Zone
- (Re)Establish the run
During the first six weeks of the season Haley has done an excellent job with number one. And while the Steelers scoring hasn’t quite below expectations given available offensive talent, Haley’s done OK in the Red Zone.
Part of the reason that scoring has not been higher lies in Haley’s plan to protect Ben by getting the ball out of his hands via shorter passes.
The strategy has yielded a tremendous time of possession advantage for Pittsburgh but up until recently that time of possession has come through the air.
- All time of possession minutes, however, are not created equally.
There’s value added to time of possession gained on the ground. Opponents get worn down. Tackles get broken. Cornerbacks throw inane fits. Running backs register double digit runs. You impose your will.
For the second straight game the Steelers have built up early leads and then taken the air out of the ball on the ground behind Jonathan Dwyer.
Somewhere the late Ron Erhardt is smiling, knowing that even after he’s passed the “Throw to score. Run to win,” philosophy that he brought to Pittsburgh lives on.
- Ironically it’s a strategy he and Bill Parcells used to best the Redskins countless times in the 80’s.
The double irony is that the real test will come in Pittsburgh’s ability to replicate that success next week against a far more formidable New York Giants team.