Losing a division game stings any team. The Washington Redskins know that firsthand.
In what surely left a sour taste on their collective taste buds, the Redskins will try to erase the memory of a tough loss to the NFC East-rival New York Giants when they visit the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field.
The Redskins dropped an exciting 27-23 road contest to the Giants at MetLife Stadium and even held the lead with less than two minutes to go on a touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III to Santana Moss. However, Washington's Achilles' heel this season has been its pass protection and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz burned the secondary for a game-winning 77- yard touchdown reception less than 20 seconds after the Redskins went ahead.
Washington never recovered and fell to 3-4 on the season, good enough for last place in the division. It all wasn't that bad for the Redskins, who saw another brilliant performance from Griffin and racked up a season-high 480 yards of offense -- the highest total since 481 yards versus Jacksonville back in 2006.
Protecting the football is vital for a team's success, and the Redskins failed to do that. They fumbled five times, losing three, and Griffin was intercepted once. He extended plays to keep his team in the game, but the turnovers were key.
"We had turnovers today and we have no excuses for that," Griffin said afterward. "But like I was telling the guys in the locker room, we had the ball with a chance to win at the end of the game, even with those turnovers.
"If we can cut down on those and continue to put points on the board, it's going to be hard to be stopped."
Griffin drew praise from several Giants players and defensive end Justin Tuck said it's going to be tough facing RG3 twice a year, blaming the "football Gods" for putting him in the NFC East. Griffin has made an immediate impact on the turnaround of Washington's offense which is first in rushing yards (177.7), fifth in total yards (406.3) and fifth in points scored (28.7). But the rushing department is where Washington is thriving.
RG3 leads the NFL with a 70.4 completion percentage and 7.3 yards per carry. He has a 101.8 passer rating, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
The 'Skins ran for 248 yards against the Giants and have totaled 1,244 rushing yards, the most the team has ever rushed for in the first seven games of a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. What's even more impressive is that the Redskins have rushed for at least 125 yards in nine straight games -- the most since turning the trick in 10 consecutive games from Weeks 13-17 of the 1990 season and Weeks 1-5 of the 1991 campaign.
Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris leads the NFC with 658 rushing yards -- one short of Arian Foster for the NFL lead -- and racked up a career- high 120 yards on 22 carries Sunday. Morris now has three 100-yard games in his brief career for Washington, which is 1-2 when that happens and has dropped four of six games since a season-opening win at New Orleans.
Pittsburgh is well known for its defensive prowess and matches up well with Washington's young and energetic offense. However, the age gap could play a role Sunday, but the Steelers have proven otherwise on separate occasions.
The Steelers evened their mark at 3-3 on the season with Sunday night's 24-17 win over the AFC North-rival Cincinnati Bengals. Chris Rainey's 11-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter was the difference, but Jonathan Dwyer's effort with both of Pittsburgh's top backs injured fueled the win. Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (knee) both missed the game, leaving the running load to Dwyer, who shined with 122 yards on 17 carries.
"I think everyone bucked up," Steelers guard Willie Colon said. "We needed that win. We can't make any more excuses. Every time we watched the film it was just us beating us. We can't have that. We know we are a better team than that. We can't wait on the next guy to make plays. Everybody has to individually step their game up and make things happen. We were able to do that."
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 27 of his 37 pass attempts for 278 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Big Ben has thrown a touchdown pass in every game this season, but only has a pair of 300-yard passing efforts. He didn't have to do much since Dwyer was impressive and the defense held the Bengals in check to the tune of 185 total yards. Cincinnati had just 80 yards rushing, which makes Pittsburgh's matchup with Washington's vaunted ground attack even more intriguing.
The Steelers will play their first of back-to-back games against the NFC East, with the Giants on the docket Nov. 4, and have won five in a row in the Steel City since a home loss to Baltimore last Nov. 6.
Pittsburgh is 33-9 at Heinz Field in the regular season, has prevailed in eight straight versus the NFC as the host and has given up 24 points in two games at home in 2012. The Steelers have won four in a row against the Redskins, including three straight in Western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the last meeting between the storied franchises, 23-6, on Nov. 3, 2008.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan is known for having successful running games throughout his NFL tenure. It didn't matter who ran the ball when Shanahan coached in Denver and that formality has taken shape in D.C. The Redskins will face a Steelers defense that is ninth against the run (92.5) and is aiming to keep its sixth opponent in the last seven games under 100 yards rushing.
Besides Griffin, who is second on the team with 468 yards on 64 carries with a team-best six rushing touchdowns, Pittsburgh has to slow down Morris. Morris has toted the football a team-best 138 times and has no less than 16 carries a game this season. The Steelers will not have safety Troy Polamalu, who has played just two games in 2012 and is bothered by a calf problem, but it will be tough for Washington to run with ease in a hostile environment. Then again the Redskins did it last week at New York.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has enjoyed as much success as Shanahan in his coaching career. LeBeau's defenses have allowed an average of 15.4 points per game at Heinz Field since 2004. The Redskins are averaging 28.7 points per game this season, and the ground attack deserves the credit. Another area of success for LeBeau is facing rookie quarterbacks. The Steelers are 12-1 against teams that start a rookie quarterback under LeBeau, whose units have amassed seven TDs to 15 interceptions. Keep an eye out for linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to make a big impression.
The Steelers have one of the top pass attacks in the league, while the Redskins couldn't defend the pass consistently if they tried. All Cruz did to get the Giants a win was run a straight route, a.k.a known as a nine pattern, past the cornerback and safety, and the rest is history.
Roethlisberger is 22-7 against the NFC in the regular season with 6,437 yards, 37 touchdowns, 20 interceptions and a passer rating of 93.3. In 15 career games against NFC opponents at home, Roethlisberger has a 14-1 mark with 3,346 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He'll add to those numbers with Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller at his passing disposal. Of course, Roethlisberger will need some protection and has been sacked three or more times on three occasions this season.
Washington had just one sack on Eli Manning last Sunday and outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan leads the team with only 3 1/2 through seven games. Pittsburgh hopes center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) will be back for added help up front.
"I expect him to be practicing tomorrow and back in action on Sunday," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Pouncey Tuesday. "Again, we will take that day by day."
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, whose streak of 231 consecutive games played is the longest active run in the NFL, is dealing with a hamstring injury. He did not practice Wednesday.
Both the Steelers and Redskins are banged up heading into Sunday's showdown at Heinz Field. But isn't every team going threw pain right now? Griffin won't have starting tight end Fred Davis for the remainder of the season due to a torn Achilles' tendon and the Redskins brought back fan favorite Chris Cooley as an emergency.
The desperate move won't help avoid a second straight loss for Washington, which will be overwhelmed by Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley's scheme. Expect Roethlisberger to show RG3 why he is a two-time Super Bowl champion. If Mendenhall and Redman can return to the field, it will make it more convenient for Roethlisberger to continue his success against the NFC. Also, a win Sunday would give Pittsburgh its 400th regular-season triumph since 1970.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Redskins 19