Redskins.com's Brian Tinsman takes a closer look at Sunday afternoon's Week 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field:
The Redskins stayed on the road this week, wrapping up their second two-city road trip of the season. The Steelers sport a new-look offense under coordinator Todd Haley, which emphasizes the dink-and-dunk passing attack over the downfield bomb. The Steelers remain a physical football team, with three 100-yard rushers on the roster and the No. 2 defense in the NFL this season.
The Redskins needed to establish the running game early, controlling the line of scrimmage and testing the Steelers' ground defense. On defense, they needed to stop the run and force the Steelers to throw the ball. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may be one of the best in the NFL, but he is susceptible to mistakes under pressure. Unfortunately, the Redskins were not able to do those things.
The receiver drops on the opening drive set up a day of disappointment on offense. An unofficial tally showed that the Redskins dropped the ball upwards of nine times today, a performance that ended drives prematurely and showed a deceptively poor performance by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. The ball was frequently put where the receivers could catch them, they were simply unable to execute in the cold, wet, hostile environment.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Tight end Niles Paul came through for a career-long 37-yard reception to kick off the second half, setting the offense up for a Kai Forbath field goal. Paul has the same size and skills as Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, who also made the switch from receiver under head coach Mike Shanahan in Denver. Look for Paul to continue to develop in Fred Davis's absence, and the Redskins to be set at tight end for years to come.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Despite unsure footing, Redskins kick returner Brandon Banks consistently helped the Redskins' battle for field position today, returning four kicks for 97 yards and two punts for 34 yards. His 27-yard punt return was the longest of the season for him, and was a credit to his patience and ability to follow blockers like tight end Niles Paul downfield.
Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen has taken a giant step forward in the last year, starting seven games since this point last year and rising to the top of the Redskins depth chart. He is not only a sensational blocking tight end, but has also blossomed into a legitimate downfield threat for Robert Griffin III. With he and Chris Cooley back in the lineup, the Redskins have two of the best blocking tight ends the team has seen in years.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
--Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has been the team's primary pass rush specialist since Week 2, but has been held without a sack since Week 4. Today, he broke the bad streak with a first-half sack of receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a Steelers' reverse play. Catching the speedy receiver in the backfield would normally amount to a tackle for a loss, but because he was in the process of throwing the ball downfield, Kerrigan was credited with the sack. Kerrigan finished with three tackles and a sack.
--With Chris Cooley back on the roster this week, the Redskins heavily utilized a twin tight end set, with Logan Paulsen as the starter. Interestingly enough, Cooley—the all-time leader in receptions by a Redskins' tight end—was used primarily in blocking. Paulsen—often mischaracterized as a blocking tight end—was the team's top receiver in the first half with a career-long 31-yard reception.
--When the Redskins signed Kai Forbath to replace kicker Billy Cundiff, head coach Mike Shanahan casually told reporters that he hoped Forbath "will be the guy here for the next 15 years." It seemed like grand expectations for a kicker without an NFL resume, but Forbath has risen to the occasion, kicking his first NFL field goal for 50 yards at home, and converting from 48 today on patchy natural grass at Heinz Field. For his brief NFL career, Forbath is six-for-six, including kicks each week from 45 yards or longer. If he can continue to improve on kickoffs, the Redskins may have found their long-term answer.
--As of Friday, Redskins linebacker London Fletcher was questionable to appear in his 232nd straight-game today, threatening the longest active streak in the NFL. After leading his unit onto the field this afternoon, Fletcher collected three solo tackles on the opening drive and finished with five on the day. Fletcher's emotional leadership was not enough to key the defensive performance today, but his physical presence likely saved today from being much worse.
--Redskins tight end Niles Paul is still adjusting to his role at tight end, but showed flashes of the big-time playmaker that his coaches think he can be. On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Paul streaked across the middle for a career-long 37-yard catch. It was a very small sample size, but it was evidence that Paul has the ability to be a tight end threat.
WHAT WENT WRONG
--The Redskins defense struggled in all facets of the game, giving up 215 yards through the air and 138 on the ground, including a 34-yard rush to Jonathan Dwyer in the first quarter. The loss of defensive end Adam Carriker and linebacker Brian Orakpo has been devastating for the unit, but change is needed as the unit falls further in the standings each week.
--On the Redskins second drive of the game, the Redskins had several golden opportunities to get on the board and make it a three-point game. Unfortunately, both Leonard Hankerson and Dezmon Briscoe dropped sure-touchdowns, forcing the Griffin III to find Santana Moss on 4-and-goal. Drops continued to be an issue throughout the day, with Moss, Morgan, Young and others letting opportunities slip.
--Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley has revitalized tight end Heath Miller's career, making him a primary target in the short-range offense. Miller's second quarter touchdown was his sixth of the season, putting him on track for a career high. For the Redskins, it was another day of struggles against an aging tight end, similar to Week 6 against Tony Gonzalez.
--The kicking woes continue, as the Redskins again give up a blocked extra point up the middle, reminiscent of last season with Graham Gano. Whether the issue was with kick trajectory or blocking, the Redskins are playing too many close games to leave easy points on the field.
With the first half Griffin III-Moss touchdown pass and the fourth quarter fourth-down conversion, the Redskins remain perfect on the season, eight-for-eight. The Redskins entered the game as one-of-four teams with 100 percent conversion rating, with none of the other three attempting more than four all season. Only two teams in the NFL have tried more than eight conversions, with none converting more than 75 percent.
The Redskins return home next week, hosting the Carolina Panthers for the annual Alumni Homecoming game. This contest offers plenty of intrigue, as two playmaking quarterbacks face off for the first time in the NFL. Last season, Cam Newton set many of the rookie passing records that Griffin III will have a chance to break this season. The Redskins will also be hosting a number of ceremonies in conjunction with the Homecoming game, including a halftime ceremony honoring the newest inductees to the Greatest Redskins of All-Time. Stay tuned to Redskins.com for more information.
Prior to today's contest, the Redskins had not lost a game by more than seven points, an impressive feat considering the strength of schedule so far this year. Despite today's disappointing outcome, the Redskins learned a number of valuable lessons today in the cold, rainy Pittsburgh weather.
The Steelers presented the first 3-4 defensive front of the season for the Redskins offense, a scheme that the Redskins should see several more times. The protection held up well against a creative pass rush, but the running game was held under 100 yards for the first time all season. Game film should offer insight on how to improve.
On defense, the Redskins yielded only 215 Steelers yards through the air, down significantly from the 328-yard season average. Cornerback Josh Wilson continued to have a solid season, and safety Madieu Williams kept all ball-carriers in front of him. The defense should learn from this game film as well.
The schedule doesn't get any easier from here, but at least the Redskins return home in search of their second home win of the season. The Panthers are the Redskins' final opponent before the bye week in Week 10.