The last time the Redskins beat the Steelers in a regular season game, the legendary Chuck Noll was still Pittsburgh’s head coach, and Joseph Jackson Gibbs was weeks away from winning his third Super Bowl as Washington’s head coach, leading a Redskins team with the greatest overall single-season Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) ever recorded.
That was just under 25 years ago.
In other words: it’s been a quarter of a century since we’ve seen Washington defeat Pittsburgh in an NFL game that matters. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that the last time the Redskins have beaten the Steelers at home, Kirk Cousins was 23 days old; he just turned 28 years old a couple of weeks ago.
If you go by the numbers, the chances of the Redskins ending that streak tonight are about the same as getting struck by lightning on a bright and sunny day. Every DC sports fan knows that almost nothing good happens when the Redskins play at home on Monday Night Football. Since FedEx Field opened in 1997, the Redskins are 2-14 in Monday Night Football games at home; compare that with the fact that the Steelers are ranked third in the NFL for the most wins in the history of Monday Night Football (43), and Mike Tomlin is 10-2 on Monday nights, as Pittsburgh’s head coach.
So how, exactly, are Redskins supposed to have any realistic hope of winning this game?
By now, Redskins fans are well aware of both Cousins and the organization both entering 2016 with a “prove it” modus operandi. Cousins wants to prove that he’s worth a lucrative, long-term contract extension with the Redskins, and the Redskins want Cousins to prove that he’s worth said lucrative, long-term contract extension.
So, tonight is Cousins first chance to “prove it.” It’s the first chapter in the story of whether he’s truly the answer to the Redskins question of “quarterback of the future.” It’s all in his hands.
Let’s go ahead and throw out the “balanced offense” and “ball control to keep the Steelers off the field” narratives. Pittsburgh was 5th in the DVOA last season against the run. But, that number is pretty meaningless, given the fact that the Redskins absolutely suck at running the football, and might have the most inept rushing attack in the NFL. So it doesn’t really matter how good Pittsburgh is at stopping a part of our offense that’s pretty much worthless in general. The most we can expect of Matt Jones and Robert “Fat Rob” Kelly is to be the occasional change-ups that keep Cousins from throwing the ball 60 times this evening.
Otherwise, Cousins has to go out and silence the skeptics who believe last season was aberration, and the critics who point out that he has yet to beat a team with a winning record.
He has to go out and do exactly what he’s asked to do: deliver the football to the group of incredibly gifted playmakers the Redskins have surrounded him with. Between DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed, and even Niles Paul and Vernon Davis, there might not be a single team in the NFL with the collective receive talent that the Redskins have.
If he can just put the football in those guys’ hands, the Steelers’ defensive backs can very much be exploited. 15 of 42 ESPN Commentators predicted the Steelers will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl (and five of them have the Steelers winning the Super Bowl), but if this team has an Achilles’ heel which could hold them short of such postseason success, it would be their secondary. Against #1 receivers last season, the Steelers allowed an average of 10 catches for 87 yards per game (26th in DVOA). Against #2 receivers, they allowed an average of seven catches for 74 yards per game (22nd in DVOA). Against deep passes (throws that traveled more than 15 yards in the air) last season, the Steelers were 28th in DVOA.
From a personnel standpoint, their secondary isn’t exactly reminiscent of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom,” either. Pittsburgh’s safeties — Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden — shouldn’t scare anyone. Neither should cornerbacks William Gay and Ross Cockrell. Behind those two, they’ve got a couple of super raw rookies in cornerback Artie Burns from the University of Miami (their first round pick) and defensive back Sean Davis out of the University of Maryland (taken with their second round pick). They drafted both guys to be the future cornerstones of the secondary, but for the purposes of Monday night, they’re not ready to contribute meaningfully or reliably.
To cover up for that deficiency, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who’s thought of as more of a “Tampa 2” traditionalist, loves to blitz a variety of different members of Pittsburgh’s front seven. So every time the Steelers try to blitz Cousins and force him into a bad decision, Cousins has to respond by counter-attacking said secondary. Whether that’s on the slant to Garcon, in the flat to Crowder, up the seam to Reed, or deep shots to Jackson, to borrow a line from the movie Rocky Balboa: every time Cousins and the Redskins offense steps on the field, they have to make the Steelers defense feel like they’re kissing an express train.
If Cousins believes he should be Washington’s franchise quarterback, he can do wonders for his case by going out and winning a game that almost nobody expects Washington to win. If Cousins believes he’s the guy who can change the recent trajectory of this woebegone franchise, he can do wonders by leading them to a win over a team they haven’t beaten at home since Ronald Reagan was president. If he wants to get paid like one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, he can do wonders for his case by going out and beating one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, while the whole country watches.
This is your moment, Kirk. All eyes are on you, and the outcome of this game rests very much in your hands.
Let’s see what you got.