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Reality Hits Hard

By Mike Wise
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

This was the night Jim Zorn found out his team is not yet ornery or physical enough even to think about wresting the Giants from their throne, the night a national television audience and their NFL peers watching at home saw the truth:

In the most malicious-hitting affair of their season, a game that had all the violent properties of a Tennessee-Baltimore showdown, Zorn's players were forced to submit to a more menacing crew that grew angrier and more aggressive until Jason Campbell and his teammates were all but knocked out.

Steel-City Ruffians 23, Washington's Wanna-Be Tough Guys 6.

This was humbling for the very reason their 6-2 sprint out of the blocks was so inspiring. Like that start, no one saw this coming, this virtual beat-down at the hands of the second-best team in the AFC after the Titans.

Asked whether this was the most physical NFL game he had been involved in, Campbell, sacked seven times, nodded. Before he made his way to the postgame news conference, trudging slowly with an old-man gait, he said, "Without a doubt, that was the most physical."

"They put their safeties 25 yards back off the line," he added. "They took away the deep ball; they took away the deep ball, and then they still bring pressure along with it."

If anyone thought Washington's surprising start was due solely to Zorn's brilliant play-calling, Clinton Portis's rushing numbers or Campbell's deft touch and composure, they missed snapshots of the roundhouse rights traded between the Steelers, who practically invented the strap-it-up-and-hit-somebody culture in pro football, and Washington, which thought it knew what winning nasty was until they ran into Pittsburgh.

Campbell was under siege, sandwiched, mauled and illegally hit at least once in a helmet-to-helmet play. Never did he go down more painfully than when linebacker LaMarr Woodley wrapped the quarterback up and body-slammed him to the ground in the second half -- a defining play that had to remind some of the Steelers faithful of a similar moment. Woodley threw Campbell to the ground with the same kind of force a guy named Joe "Turkey" Jones once threw Terry Bradshaw to the ground, a sack that ended Bradshaw's season in 1976.

"I thought some of them were kind of over-exaggerated," he said, when asked if he felt some of the Steelers' hits were excessive. "Personally, I thought so. You know, a couple of hits to the head. But there's nothing you can do about it."

Campbell got up, but he was never steady again. Intercepted for the first time this season, outshined by Byron Leftwich, a former phenom now reduced to the role of backup, their once-proficient quarterback was unable to gain a rhythm on a humbling night all around.

The hard part to digest for Washington was that this was the kind of scrap the Redskins believed they could win, the kind of game they played better than Dallas and Philadelphia in impressive road wins that first month. After the Steelers went up 23-6 early in the fourth quarter, how long ago those victories seemed.

"The battle was there," Zorn said. "I didn't think our guys were cowering to how physical the game was. We were as physical, but with a defense like that we would have had to have been exact on everything. I don't think any group is going to be able to block that group every single play."

Playing from behind, Zorn said, also made the Steelers look that much more physically superior.

"When the team that they're playing has to throw, they just got to put the little warrior bandana on and here they come," he said.

Either way, underneath the phalanx of aching bodies -- never has a bye week come at a more opportune time for a team that needs to heal -- was the realization that this team isn't quite there yet.

A victory would have put them in elite company, among the handful of teams that have shown the mettle more than halfway through the season to make it to Tampa in February.

Today there are four -- the Giants and Carolina Panthers in the NFC and the Titans and the Steelers in the AFC, none of whom has more than two losses. Tampa Bay and Philadelphia might have the chops to join that group, but after last night Washington has to be removed from the conversation until it proves it can withstand the kind of defensive assault the Steelers threw at them.

Points and big plays were at such a premium. Ben Roethlisberger felt pain, too. He was sacked three times before leaving the game in the first half with a shoulder injury.

The game was an eyesore offensively, the kind of viewing that probably makes television producers cringe. On the surface, this might have been the perfect time slot to showcase Santana Moss bolting on a fly pattern and Portis cutting back toward daylight.

But winning in the NFL when the weather begins to turn has nothing to do with ratings or eye-candy highlights. The Giants proved that last winter, showing they had more grit and tenacity than Dallas, Green Bay or New England, showing that popping another team in the mouth is more effective than all the days spent piling up 400 yards of fantasy league offense.

Look at the Cowboys. They lose their No. 1 skill player and have no identity, no chance of becoming a bona fide contender again. They wear silver like the Tin Man wore silver, walking around aimlessly, looking for heart.

The Steelers, meanwhile, get beat up by the Giants a week ago, weather all kind of physical ailments and manage to bump helmets with another good team last night and win convincingly.

Before kickoff even, last night had the ambience of a high school game, replete with vociferous boos when the visiting team took the field. An energy and spirit consumed FedEx Field, the feeling their team was a player now, a favorite against even a rough-and-tumble franchise like the Steelers.

And on election eve no less, where the night had a very political feel to it. From Steelers chairman Dan Rooney's Obama pin to Dan Snyder's guest in the Washington owner's box, conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, it was a night with no gray area.

As Campbell threw his second interception of the game in the waning moments, and thousands of yellow terry-cloth towels waved from the stands, it was all about the black and blue Pittsburgh had served up to Jim Zorn's battered team.

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