We previously established that the Redskins should be able to run the ball against the Steelers Sunday. It will be critical to any chances they'll have to win on the road, which, ultimately, is what playoff teams do.
(Washington hasn't been a playoff team since 2007; whether that changes this year will depend in large part on what happens over the next month. After the Steelers, the Panthers come to FedEx Field, then it's the bye, followed by division matchups against the Eagles and Cowboys. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. First thing first: Pittsburgh.)
For all that rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III brings to Washington's offense, it's the defense that has been a consistent disappointment over the first seven weeks of the season. The numbers bear that out: according to Football Outsiders, the 'Skins' D ranks 19th overall (14th against the run, 16th against the pass). Complicating matters: Veteran linebacker and team leader London Fletcher is battling balance issues.
He didn't practice Wednesday and is being evaluated by a neurologist. Fletcher has played in 231 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league. But he's currently listed as questionable on the injury report.
“Before we say we’re worried (about Fletcher's status), let’s get a review from the doctors and see what they have to say," Coach Mike Shanahan said. "We’ll know more (Thursday).”
But even if Fletcher does suit up, that won't magically fix a decidedly underperforming secondary. A secondary, by the way, that allowed an Eli Manning-to-Victor Cruz 77-yard touchdown pass with 90 seconds left in last week's matchup. Not only did the play prove to be the game-winner, Manning said this week that he knew what the 'Skins would do in that situation based on how they played in the two-minute offense at the end of the first half.
Manning's remarks didn't sit well with cornerback DeAngelo Hall who said (via the Washington Examiner), “For him to say that in the first half he picked up on it and to not make a play until the last play of the game? I don't know how well he picked up on it.
"Ultimately, he did because he made the play to beat us. But I don't feel like he made that play. I feel we gave him that play. We just had one guy set his feet and one guy not do this. I could have thrown that ball, and he would have scored. It wasn't something where he was a rocket scientist and he figured something out. We just played that as bad as possible.”
Manning's response: "I appreciate him giving it to me. Thank you. … I didn't think it took a rocket scientist to figure it out, either. We had a guy running open, and we hit him."
Whatever level of education is required to complete a pass to a wide-open receiver, the bottom line remains: Washington has to do better.
Yes, Cruz is one of the league's most dangerous slot receivers but it's not like the Giants have a bunch of other down-the-field threats. Hakeem Nicks returned to the lineup but he's been nursing injuries all season. And New York's second-leading receiver against the Redskins was tight end Martellus Bennett.
The Steelers, meanwhile, have a depth chart full of young, explosive wideouts. Antonio Brown is arguably a quicker version of Cruz, and then there's field-stretcher Mike Wallace. Emmanuel Sanders is another shifty pass catcher, giving quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three weapons and we haven't even mentioned one of the league's most underrated tight ends, Heath Miller.
Washington's secondary, as currently constituted, can't be expected to stay with Brown, Wallace and Sanders. Which means that the front seven will have to mount a pass rush.
Good news: It's relatively easy to get to Big Ben.
Bad news: It's nearly impossible to take him down.
Worse news: new offensive coordinator Todd Haley favors a scheme that gets the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands quickly. The result: fewer hits, fewer sacks, and the Steelers usually dominate the time of possession.
The Redskins face one of their biggest challenges of the season but if they can find a way to get off the field on third down they'll have a great chance for a road win.