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Monday night’s victory over the Washington Redskins won’t become Pittsburgh Steelers lore. The footage won’t be used as an example of flawless football. The Steelers beat the Redskins, but the Redskins also went out of their way to beat themselves.
The shorthanded Steelers, though, executed in practically all the big spots en route to a 38-16 triumph. And in Week 1, that’s all that matters.
Slow start? Sure, they went three-and-out on their first offensive possession, and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception on their second drive. But after being shut out for the first 15 minutes, Pittsburgh scored double-digit points in each of the next three quarters.
And after failing to convert that initial third down, Roethlisberger and Co. moved the chains on nine of their remaining 13 third-down plays.
They weren’t always as crisp as we’ve come to expect, which isn’t surprising considering key 2015 offensive cogs Le’Veon Bell (suspension), Martavis Bryant (suspension), Markus Wheaton (shoulder injury) and Heath Miller (retirement) were absent.
It couldn’t have been an easy adjustment, but Roethlisberger completed all but 10 of his 37 pass attempts, backup running back DeAngelo Williams had 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Bell’s stead and the offense was penalized just twice all night.
The key, though, was the way the Steelers kept moving, limiting a potent Redskins offense to just 16 points despite the shaky start.
At one point, the Steelers converted six out of eight third downs, with the two non-conversions leading to successful fourth-down gambles. They were practically unstoppable when trying to extend drives, despite the fact Roethlisberger was forced to work with unproven receivers in those spots.
A 3rd-and-4 on the Washington 9-yard line with less than a minute remaining in the first half? All good. Roethlisberger hit Miller’s replacement, Jesse James (who had eight career catches prior to Monday), for a clutch six-yard conversion, leading directly to a three-yard touchdown pass to Wheaton’s replacement, rookie Eli Rogers.
A 3rd-and-13 midway through the fourth quarter of what was still a one-score game? No problem. Roethlisberger to Sammie Coates (who had one career reception prior to Monday) for a 14-yard pickup.
A 2nd-and-19 on the Washington 36-yard line later on that same drive? Calm and cool, Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for a 21-yard gain.
A 3rd-and-5 on the Washington 27 and a chance to put a two-score game away with three minutes to play? Easy-looking 16-yard completion to Brown.
Again, it’s Week 1, and this is a new-look team. You’re not asking for perfection, but you’re searching for signs. And Pittsburgh’s success with unaccomplished offensive players on big downs is a good sign, a great omen.
The Steelers converted 64.3 percent of their third-down attempts, but throw in those two fourth-down conversions, and, for all intents and purposes, they were rolling at a rate of 78.6 percent. Last year, only one team all season had a higher single-game third-down conversion rate than that.
|Week 8, 2011||10||16||62.5|
|Week 7, 2012||10||16||62.5|
|Week 8, 2014||8||13||61.5|
|Week 13, 2015||8||13||61.5|
Pro Football Reference
As a result, the Steelers controlled the ball for 33 minutes and 18 seconds.
And as a result, Pittsburgh controlled the game, which is something few road teams were able to do against Washington in 2015.
Yeah, the ‘Skins are legit. It might not have been their night—they lacked balance on offense and couldn’t make stops on D—but this is a team that had won six of its last seven regular-season home games. During that seven-game stretch in 2015, the Redskins outscored their opponents by 64 points. Only once did they score fewer than 20 points, and they allowed more than 20 only twice.
But on Sunday, they scored just 16 and surrendered 38. They couldn’t stop Pittsburgh when it mattered, they couldn’t get to Roethlisberger and they failed to come through offensively.
|Packers||Wild Card Game, 2015||17|
|Dolphins||Week 1, 2015||7|
|Cowboys||Week 13, 2015||3|
Pro Football Reference
That might mean 2015 was a one-year wonder for the Redskins and their quarterback, Kirk Cousins. Regardless, it almost definitely means the Steelers are primed to contend for a championship in the wide-open AFC.
They’ll miss Miller and Bryant, both of whom won’t play this season. But they proved Monday night that as long as as Roethlisberger is there, they’ll continue to make big plays at big moments.
And come January, that’s what’ll have them in the thick of things with fellow flawed-but-stacked AFC heavyweights such as New England and Denver.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.