We should have seen fireworks Monday night. We knew Pittsburgh’s offense would be good, we figured neither defense at FedEx Field could defend the pass, and we spent the second half of last season watching Washington’s Kirk Cousins play like the best quarterback in football.
At least the Steelers held up their end of the bargain. Washington played like its NFC East–winning turnaround last season hadn’t happened, and a prospective offensive duel turned into a comfortable 38–16 Pittsburgh win.
Cousins’s stat line against the Steelers wasn’t bad. Washington’s franchise-tagged quarterback threw for 329 yards and completed a healthy 70 percent of his passes, ranking him in the top 10 in the NFL in both categories after one game. Jay Gruden’s team picked up first downs between the 20s, put together four scoring drives in the game, and dominated the first quarter of play.
But the accumulated mass of those numbers belies their relative inefficiency. While Pittsburgh moved the ball in great leaps, Washington was stuck pressing forward in small steps; while Pittsburgh increased its production in the red zone, Washington repeatedly stalled near the edge of scoring range.
Tactically, Washington’s baffling game plan relied almost exclusively on a short-range passing attack. Last year, Pittsburgh’s defense ranked just 28th by DVOA in defending against deep balls, but on Monday night, Cousins didn’t attempt a pass of at least 20 yards until his 15th throw. It went for 33 yards to DeSean Jackson, Washington’s longest play of the game, when the speedster ended up isolated against overmatched safety Mike Mitchell. It was the only deep ball he threw in the first half.
Washington’s next legitimate downfield attempts didn’t come until the fourth quarter, when Cousins sparked a no-huddle scoring drive with a 19-yard out to Pierre Garcon and a 16-yard laser to Jamison Crowder over the middle. Washington scored its only touchdown two plays later. But it was too little, too late for Gruden’s group; the team might have done more on the scoreboard had it adopted a more varied aerial attack earlier in the game.
Through the first three quarters, Washington used a bevy of shallow crossing routes to place its receivers in space to make plays after the catch — and when tight end Jordan Reed made linebackers whiff on multiple tackle attempts on Washington’s first drive, that strategy seemed reasonable. But Pittsburgh adjusted, particularly on third downs, and Washington effectively shrunk the operative area of the field of its own accord.
In the second half of last season — when Cousins transformed into a guy playing Madden on the rookie difficulty setting— Reed averaged 11.9 yards per reception and 9.7 yards per target. Against Pittsburgh, those figures were a pedestrian 9.1 and 5.8, respectively. But he wasn’t alone — through three quarters, Jackson was the only player in burgundy and gold to gain more than 14 yards in a single play. Four different Steelers had surpassed that mark by then.
Pittsburgh’s offense succeeded in large part because it ran a less homogenous scheme. Most notably, the Steelers moved Antonio Brown across the offensive formation, including splitting him wide to the left to line him up against Bashaud Breeland rather than All-Pro Josh Norman. That simple shift created both of Brown’s touchdowns, which came on go routes against single coverage while Norman was essentially tasked with shutting down the Steelers’ receiver afterthoughts on the far side of the field.
Washington doesn’t have an Antonio Brown on its roster, but it could have attempted a similar strategy. Pittsburgh’s secondary certainly is open to such machinations: The Steelers started Robert Golden, a career backup, at one safety slot and Mitchell at the other, and starter Ross Cockrell is far from a shutdown corner. (He did the most damage to his own team on Monday, dropping the easiest interception opportunity he’ll ever get when Cousins and a receiver miscommunicated on a hot route against a first-half blitz.)
Announcer Jon Gruden opted to praise Pittsburgh’s defense for taking away Washington’s deep options rather than criticize his brother, and Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler deserves credit for mixing blitzes with soft zones and forcing Cousins to look underneath more than he may have wanted.
But Washington needs to unlock deeper levels in the passing game, lest its offense fizzle out entirely. The team ranked 30th in yards per rush attempt last year and last in rushing DVOA, with a running game 23.5 percent worse than the league average. Watching Matt Jones try to squeeze through clogged lanes against Pittsburgh — the fumble-prone feature back averaged only 3.4 yards per carry Monday night (and all of last season) — it’s hard to believe that Washington might be only 23.5 percent worse than average.
If Washington wants to repeat as NFC East champion, the team needs an offense that resembles last season’s second-half attack. The addition of first-round pick Josh Doctson, who suffered an injury in the offseason, should help — he caught his first NFL pass late in the game. Reed is still a red zone terror against most defenses. Jackson (six catches, 102 yards, plus a drawn 46-yard pass interference penalty) was the offense’s lone bright spot Monday, and he made his case for more targets downfield; Doctson, too, will require long balls to maximize his usefulness once he works into the offense.
Jay Gruden needs to diversify, and he needs to grow more aggressive on offense. He could also serve to do the same for his own decision-making. On his team’s first drive, Gruden decided to punt on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers’ 40 — a decision made all the more curious by his call to go for it on fourth-and-6 from the Steelers’ 38 later in the half. In a fitting illustration of Washington’s game plan, that call ended up backfiring when Cousins’s completion ended up inches short of the first-down sticks.