Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) pulls in a touchdown pass under pressure from Washington Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland (26) during the second half of an NFL football game in Landover, Md., Monday, Sept. 12, 2016 (Alex Brandon/AP)
The overflowing excitement of a new season drained slowly into reality Monday night. The hope of a season-opening statement went swirling with it. If you thought this would be the night the Washington Redskins announced themselves as a legitimate contender, well, that was a nice little fleeting fantasy.
Dreams are a good thing, you know. But sometimes you wake up too soon, and all of a sudden Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is throwing deep to Antonio Brown in the third quarter, and the all-pro wide receiver is making a beautiful 26-yard touchdown reception and twerking in the end zone. Brown drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for a dancing celebration that he made look extra raunchy, but the mind can’t delete such a sight. It burned the eyes. So, too, did the final score: Pittsburgh 38, Washington 16.
It was a sobering reminder of how far Washington has to go. For all the improvements the franchise has made, for all the well-earned excitement it has generated, this isn’t a team ready for primetime, not unless the opponent has a losing record. There’s still reason to believe that 2016 will be another year of progress, but the wait might take months rather than weeks.
By the end Monday night, a FedEx Field crowd of 79,124 had thinned to an audience mostly of Terrible Towel-waving Steelers fans chanting, “Here we go, Steelers, here we go!” as 33-year-old running back DeAngelo Williams completed a 143-yard, two-touchdown performance.
To the burgundy supporters bonked by disappointment, Washington Coach Jay Gruden could only say, “We let them down in a big way.”
Pittsburgh provided an important Week 1 dissection. The Steelers dominated up front on both sides of the ball, going for 147 yards on the ground and yielding just 55 , exposing Washington’s issues of talent, toughness and commitment to playing physical football. Roethlisberger took advantage of nearly every opportunity, lucky or otherwise, while the Redskins failed to capitalize on several early chances that could’ve stretched a 6-0 lead well into double digits.
Simply, you watched a good team with Super Bowl aspirations and clear understanding of itself pummel a developing squad still tinkering and perhaps wandering into a dangerous identity problem. The difference between the two teams was as dramatic as the situational stats show. The Steelers converted 9 of 14 third-down chances and both of their fourth-down attempts, including a ridiculous 29-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Brown on fourth and one in the second quarter. Brown caught the pass between free safety DeAngelo Hall and cornerback Bashaud Breeland, one of many difficult moments for Breeland against him.
The loss isn’t as troubling as the way in which Washington lost, the fact that the team’s most curious offseason decisions manifested as glaring weaknesses in this game. General Manager Scot McCloughan strayed from making moves to add talent to the defensive line and give the run game a significant boost, opting instead to upgrade other areas. Washington made cornerback Josh Norman the highest-paid player at his position, and while he played fine against Pittsburgh, the defense still allowed 435 yards. It drafted wide receiver Josh Doctson, who plays a position of strength on this roster, in the first round. Then it took linebacker-safety Su’a Cravens in the second round and cornerback Kendall Fuller in the third . It’s premature to say the strategy was wrong, but as Washington began this 16-game trek, it played like a soft football team.
Just a year ago, Washington was obsessed with getting better up front. McCloughan brought in stopgap defensive veterans to ensure the team was more physical. He drafted guard Brandon Scherff fifth overall and dismissed critics who thought that was too high, partly because he knew the team needed a major injection of toughness. Gruden and the entire franchise preached the need to establish a physical style upfront.
Now it seems as if Washington is morphing into something else. Something softer. Yes, the team made the playoffs last season on the back of a potent passing game. But it’s foolish to think that style is sustainable, especially because the team didn’t beat a winning opponent with it.
The stat must be repeated: Washington only played three teams in 2015 that finished the year with a winning record. In those games, against New England, Carolina and the New York Jets, Washington lost by a combined score of 105-46. And in the playoffs, it lost 35-18 at home to Green Bay.
Even though the Redskins had difficulty running the ball and stopping the run for most of last season, they were never as easy to break down as they were Monday night.
“I mean, we got beat,” linebacker Will Compton said. “We got whupped.”
Washington couldn’t run the ball, and its patience with the run — seven rushing attempts in the first half, 12 for the entire game — was even worse. The defensive line was a complete non-factor, struggling in the trenches as the unit allowed 4.9 yards per carry. The defense recorded just one sack, which came when linebacker Ryan Kerrigan stripped Roethlisberger but didn’t recover the fumble. Besides Chris Baker, there aren’t any impact performers on this D-line. It’s a collection of role players that the coaches hope to mix and match in order to be effective.
It didn’t work on Monday. It probably won’t work for any prolonged period this season. In the NFL, defensive lines are built, for the most part, by spending big money and investing major draft picks. There are a few players, such as Baker, who will surprise. But it’s hard to make an impact with a roster of overlooked defensive linemen, especially when most of those are veterans who have been overlooked their entire careers. That’s not overlooked. They’ve been seen and discarded.
From the beginning, Washington didn’t have any confidence in its run game. Fourteen of the first 19 plays were passes. With only 12 rushes, Washington had the fewest rushing attempts of any NFL team in Week 1. The blocking was inconsistent, and the running backs did not look good despite averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Many of their successful run plays came at insignificant moments. As a result, Kirk Cousins had to throw 43 times. He completed 30 of them and amassed 329 yards, but he also threw two interceptions and missed a few early throws in key situations. The Redskins wound up throwing passes on 78 percent of their 55 offensive plays. Do that too much, and Cousins is guaranteed to fail.
Surely Washington will get better, and it starts with the team’s approach. The style we saw on this night? It won’t cut it.
If the Redskins think they can win this way, they’re dreaming, and the time for fantasizing ended about eight Antonio Brown receptions ago.