The Washington Redskins ran onto FedEx Field for Monday’s 2016 season opener as reigning NFC East champions, but deemed underdogs on their own turf. So the home team had a point to prove on the grand stage of “Monday Night Football.”
The goal was to show that last season’s success was no fluke — that the Redskins hadn’t simply stumbled to the top of a division that imploded around them. Their mission against the favored Pittsburgh Steelers was to prove they were a team to be feared, led by franchise-tagged quarterback Kirk Cousins and a defense that included newly signed Josh Norman, the self-proclaimed “greatest cornerback on Earth.”
Instead, they fell short. And they fell hard, trounced, 38-16, before 79,124 towel-whipping fans of both teams.
The Redskins couldn’t run the ball. They couldn’t stop the run. While the pass-heavy offense managed drives, it sputtered when it mattered, settling for field goals on their first three scoring drives. And the highly touted defensive backfield was simply no match for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his favorite receiver, Antonio Brown, who combined for two touchdowns.
Steelers running back De’Angelo Williams rushed for two more in the final six minutes, easily exploiting a gassed defense.
“They took us behind the woodshed today and wore our tail out,” said Norman, signed in the offseason to a five-year, $75 million dollar deal. “A good old-fashioned butt-whipping, that’s what it was. Can’t take anything away from that. Hats off to them.”
Cousins completed 30 of 43 throws for 329 yards but was held without a touchdown pass and threw two interceptions, the second coming with 18 seconds left in a hopeless cause.
Roethlisberger was 27 of 37 for 300 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception. He led a relentless Steelers offense that converted 64 percent of its third downs (9 of 14), while the Redskins converted just 3 of 10.
“The money downs is a big difference in the game,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said, “but overall they just outcoached us and outplayed us.”
The Redskins rushed for just 55 yards to Pittsburgh’s 147.
And in the bleak aftermath, it was clear that the Redskins’ journey for league-wide respect will be a season-long affair. It certainly wasn’t achieved on a night in which the offense was painfully one-dimensional, the defense was overwhelmed (weary, no doubt, from being on the field nearly seven minutes longer than the Steelers’ defense) and the gulf between the Redskins’ aspirations and present-day reality was glaring.
The teams traded fruitless possessions to start.
After Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson turned a routine catch into a 31-yard gain, Cousins had two shots at a touchdown: The first a drop by Jordan Reed in the back of the end zone, the second a low pass to Jamison Crowder that fell incomplete. So Dustin Hopkins drilled a 31-yard field goal to hand Washington a 3-0 lead.
The Steelers’ next series ended with Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland grabbing a tipped pass. Handed a short field, Washington’s offense settled for a field goal again, with Hopkins true from 40.
The 6-0 lead felt like a consolation prize.
The Steelers’ next drive should have died twice but ended instead with Roethlisberger conjuring a touchdown no one saw coming. On the way the score, linebacker Ryan Kerrigan flew in for a sack and, for at least a split-second, cradled the ball in his hands with the end zone in easy striking distance.
But the big-bodied Roethlisberger recovered it, and the Steelers’ drive trudged on until Norman got what looked like a clean strip of Brown. But the throw was ruled incomplete, and the Redskins lost the challenge claiming otherwise.
Given new life, the Steelers got as far the Washington’s 29. One yard shy of a first down, Pittsburgh went for it, and Roethlisberger unleashed a strike to Brown in the end zone that put the Steelers out front, 7-6.
Gruden gambled, too, on Washington’s next drive. But the odds of converting a fourth and six from Pittsburgh’s 38 were poor. Cousins’s throw gained five yards when one more was required.
More than six minutes remained in the half, but the Redskins didn’t get the ball again before the break. Roethlisberger was a study in calculated restraint, marching his team down the field over 14 plays. The touchdown that capped it was a wild one, with the quarterback’s three-yard strike caroming off Sammie Coates and into the hands of Eli Rogers before a Redskins defender had a chance to respond. And it sent Washington to its locker room trailing 14-6.
The Steelers padded their lead with a 46-yard field goal to open the second half.
Trailing by nine, the Redskins got a heads-up play from Pierre Garcon, who scooped up a ball stripped from Crowder to prevent a turnover. But no heroics could save a Cousins throw intended for Reed. Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier got to the ball first.
Roethlisberger pounced on the momentum shift, firing a 26-yard strike just over Brown’s shoulder and into his hands as he sped into the end zone just ahead of Breeland, who struggled against the receiver all night.
The Redskins replied with a third field goal to narrow the deficit, 24-9, as the third quarter ended.
Veteran tight end Vernon Davis proved the unlikely offensive spark on the Redskins’ lone touchdown, bulldozing 20 yards to the 1. From there, Chris Thompson squirted through for the score — the first rushing touchdown of his career — to keep the Redskins’ hopes alive, 24-16.
But in the final 5:48, Williams motored in for the pair of scores that put the game well of reach.
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