LANDOVER, Md. – There’s nothing like the season-opening game at home, when last year’s memories are fresh and hopes for the new campaign are high. And when you’re trying to establish yourself as a bona fide contender, there’s no better way to kick things off than to host a Super Bowl-caliber team that enters your stadium as a road favorite.
Then the game starts and you realize you’re further away than you imagined. You see the difference between being close and being competitive, between almost and not quite. You can a painful, unwelcome reminder that a play here and a play there can separate 10-6 from 6-10 at season’s end.
Washington took a step toward the latter Monday night against Pittsburgh, wasting a fast start before the Steelers laid waste to them, 38-16. What began with so much promise ended with sheer despair.
If only Washington had cashed in on two early drives instead of settling for field goals and a 6-0 lead. If only Ryan Kerrigan had fell on the ball after his strip-sack of Ben Roethlisberger instead of trying to pick it up and run, giving it back on his own fumble. If only officials ruled that Antonio Brown actually caught a pass and was striped prior to the Steelers first touchdown, instead of ruling the bang-bang play incomplete.
If only Washington’s defense could buy a vowel (to spell STOP) or uncover a clue against a unit that amassed 435 yards without suspended stars, top halfback Le’Veon Bell and dangerous receiver Martavis Bryant.
But the Steelers had everything they needed with Roethlisberger under center, DeAngelo Williams in the backfield, Bryant out wide and a defense that embodied its head coach, Mike Tomlin, on the sideline. It was a recipe for the home team’s disaster.
Even the yellow, “Terrible Towels” twirled by Pittsburgh fans seemed bigger and better – and much more numerous – than the burgundy knockoffs Washington passed out.
So consider it a total team failure: offense, defense and marketing.
Coach Jay Gruden will have a difficult time finding any bright spots, especially in the middle quarters when Washington was outscored 24-3. I suppose he can point to his team rallying for a 77-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter, closing to within one score at 24-16.
But Pittsburgh responded with its own 73-yard march, capped by Williams’ 15-yard run, ending any notion of a fairy tale comeback.
Perceived weaknesses were amplified as Williams rushed for 143 yards, nearly thrice as many as Washington netted on the ground (55 yards). Worse yet, Washington’s so-called strength was exposed. Brown torched cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Josh Norman for 126 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 29-yard go route on fourth-and-1 for the Steelers’ first score.
It’s not like Brown was wide open every time he was targeted. Breeland seemed to be in good position to make a play on a few occasions, but was no match for Brown’s skill and guile at separating in the milliseconds before the ball arrives. And Roethlisberger threw some absolutely beautiful passes, usually placing them where no one in burgundy and gold had a chance.
“Every time I see him he plays like that,” Gruden said. “He is a great quarterback and loves the show.”
All in all, Washington was embarrassed on national TV as it seeks to prove last year was no fluke and quarterback Kirk Cousins is no dud. Everyone at team headquarters talked a good game during offseason and the preseason and their belief was sky-high. But belief doesn’t gain yards or make tackles. s you so far. Tomlin’s postgame remarks about the Steelers could be pasted in Washington’s locker room.
“I had confidence going in but the proof is in the pudding, like we said several times,” he said. “Confidence only goes so far. Those guys have to deliver the plays and we were confident in them. But more importantly, they delivered the plays and that’s what’s required.”
It’s a terrible way to start but it’s only the beginning. Recent experience proves that strong finishes are more important, especially in an NFC East division that’s less-than-imposing. A Sunday victory against Dallas will heal many wounds from Monday.
“This isn’t unfamiliar territory in terms of having to rally,” Cousins said. “We just have to work hard this week and be ready to go for the next one. That’s kind of life in the NFL.”
Gauging where a team stands from week-to-week can be difficult under the best circumstances after a close loss, let alone a blow-out.
But no matter the margin of defeat, it’s obvious that close isn’t good enough and not close is worse.