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Unlikely Cast Powers Washington Past Steelers

Running back J.D. McKissic makes a catch and turns up field during the Washington Football Team's game against the Steelers on Dec. 7, 2020. (Alex Mowrey/NFL)

The Washington Football Team's winning formula this season has included big games from wide receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson.

In its four victories entering Monday night, the duo averaged 174.9 yards and scored six touchdowns. If Washington was going to beat the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, it would likely be because of its top two offensive weapons.

Yet in Washington's season-defining victory at Heinz Field, McLaurin recorded his lowest statistical totals of the season and Gibson left the game with a toe injury in the first quarter. Of the offense's 318 yards, they combined for 28 on four touches.

What Pittsburgh was not ready for was the three-headed attack of wide receiver Cam Sims, tight end Logan Thomas and running back J.D. McKissic. The Steelers entered Week 13 with the NFL's best passing defense (193.2 yards per game); the unheralded trio combined for 24 catches, 260 yards and a touchdown to help hand the Steelers their first defeat.

"Just spreading the ball around," head coach Ron Rivera said about the team's unconventional offensive success. "If you look at it again, all the guys that were targeted, and that's the important thing because when you start spreading the ball around, you stop trying to force it, I think it opens more things up. It opened up a little of the running game at times for us at the right time. We spread it around. Cam started to make some big plays. We started throwing it underneath, whether we were throwing it to Logan or we were throwing it to one of the backs coming out of the back field. When you do that, you give yourself a chance to win because, again, they can't just focus in on one or two guys."

Thomas smashed his previous career-highs with nine receptions for 98 yards and a touchdown, and he was the only Washington pass-catcher making plays for most of the first half. The team's first six drives ended with five punts and a turnover on downs, yet Thomas caught all six of his targets for 36 yards during this stretch. When quarterback Alex Smith was pressured, he often found Thomas to avoid getting sacked.

Thomas only had two catches over the final two periods, but they were two of his biggest catches of the season. Facing a 2nd-and-12 from the Steelers' 31-yard line, Thomas caught a well-thrown pass from Smith over a cornerback and rumbled down to the 1-yard line. Four plays later, running back Peyton Barber's one-yard score pulled Washington within 14-10 midway through the third quarter.

Thomas' final reception -- a 15-yard score early in the fourth quarter -- almost did not happen because McKissic fumbled on the second play of the drive. But as he had done all game, Thomas saw the ball up for grabs and attacked it to keep the possession alive.

"Coach [Rivera] says that plays are there to be made, and they don't care who makes them," Thomas said. "And it's the person who gives the most effort who is going to make that play."

Sims has given that type of effort all season, which is why Washington promoted him to the active roster permanently Sept. 22. He's been operating as the team's No. 2 receiver and No. 1 deep threat ever since (19.8 yards per reception since Week 6).

Sims' five-catch, 92-yard performance Monday was especially important in a game in which no other wide receiver had more than 17 yards. His first catch did not come until there were 50 seconds left in the first half, but the 31-yard gain kickstarted a sluggish offense and led to a crucial field goal before the break. Early in the third quarter, Sims showcased his vision by catching a screen pass and weaving in between Washington and Pittsburgh players for a 31-yard gain on 3rd-and-14.

With the game tied and about four minutes to play, Smith trusted Sims again. Washington only needed four yards on this third down, but Smith went for it all down the right sideline with cornerback Cameron Sutton in tight coverage. At the last moment, Sims gained just enough separation to make a one-handed catch for a 29-yard gain. Dustin Hopkins' ensuing field goal gave the visitors a lead they would never relinquish.

With how consistent and productive McLaurin has been this season, Smith knew there would be times when the other pass-catchers would have to step up if he was contained. That situation unfolded against the Steelers, and Sims and Thomas could not have responded better.

"We know that going into a game, we know most teams are going to try to take Terry away because he's a great player, man, a phenomenal player," Sims said. "So we know everybody else just got to step up their game because it feels like they're not respecting us, so we got to do our thing."

Lost in the hoopla of Sims' and Thomas' splash plays was a career game from McKissic, who set career highs in receptions (10) and receiving yards (70). When Smith could not find anyone downfield, he would connect with McKissic out of the backfield or underneath. A majority of his receptions came on first and second down and set up favorite down-and-distance situations. For an offense that managed just 45 rushing yards on 21 carries, the short and easy passes were just what the unit needed.

McLaurin is still on pace to have one of the most productive seasons in franchise history, so there is a good chance he will bounce back in a big way against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. If Gibson is able to play, he'll be a big part of the game plan, too.

But in the event that either young playmaker struggles moving forward, there is no need to worry. There are plenty of options to pick up the slack.

"It shows that we have the potential," Rivera said about the win. "It shows that we have the kind of players you need to give yourself a chance to win. And I think we have got a good mix going right now. We got to continue to build off it."