The Washington Football Team stunned the Pittsburgh Steelers, 23-17, to secure its third straight victory and remain in contention for the NFC East division title. Here are five takeaways from the win.
1. The defense stepped up.
Pittsburgh's offense is not among the best in the NFL statistically, but defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said Thursday that the team still had a tough task in defending against a Ben Roethlisberger-led unit.
It's safe to say the defense stepped up to that challenge. There were still some slipups -- Washington allowed a 50-yard touchdown in the second quarter -- but the good plays far outweighed the bad in the first half. Washington forced back-to-back three-and-outs on Pittsburgh's opening drives, and initially limited the rushing attack to eight yards on five carries. Pittsburgh finished the game with 21 yards on the ground.
One of the biggest highlights came in the second quarter when the unit was backed up on its own 1-yard line. On fourth down, defensive end Chase Young made a diving stop on Benny Snell for no gain.
Washington then held Pittsburgh to just three points in the second half, and limiting big plays was the key. The Steelers could only muster 120 yards and just one touchdown on three trips to the red zone. And even though it could not force a sack on Roethlisberger, it still managed to bat down passes, one of which resulted in a game-sealing interception.
"Very proud of them," head coach Ron Rivera said of the defensive line. "One of the things that they were talking about with the coaches was getting our hands up, getting our hands up, getting our hands up."
2. The team played sloppy in the first half…
While the defense played well in the first half, the offense struggled to find momentum by getting minimal yards with little to no results. The unit's first three drives combined for 58 yards, and all three ended in punts.
Alex Smith finished the half 15-of-22 for 122 yards, but his incompletions proved to be costly. Back-to-back drops from Isaiah Wright and Steven Sims Jr., which were catchable and on-target, stymied Washington's second drive, resulting in a three-and-out.
Washington made an even more costly error immediately after Roethlisberger hit Dionte Johnson for a four-yard touchdown. The offense attempted a fourth-down conversion with a trick play that involved Logan Thomas and J.D. McKissic, but unlike the Thanksgiving game against the Dallas Cowboys, the play was stuffed for a three-yard loss. Fortunately, the defense was able to bail it out, but it still gave Pittsburgh a short field to work with.
The unit also couldn't capitalize on a goal line stand by the defense, and all Pittsburgh needed was one play to extend its lead to 14-0. Then, after Cam Sims had a 30-yard reception to put the offense at the Steelers' 29-yard line, Smith was sack on back-to-back plays, which forced the team to settle for a field goal.
3. …but big plays from Cam Sims and Logan Thomas provided a spark.
Prior to kickoff, any production from the offense was expected to come from either Antonio Gibson or Terry McLaurin, but both were nonfactors. Gibson was injured in the first quarter, and McLaurin only had 14 yards on two receptions.
Fortunately, Washington had a pair of good substitutes in Thomas and Sims, who combined for 190 yards on 14 receptions. Sims provided the play that sparked the offense at the end of the first half, which led to a 49-yard field goal, but he also supplied a 31-yard reception on a 3rd-and-14 in the third quarter, which ultimately helped Washington secure its first touchdown by way of a one-yard run from Peyton Barber.
His biggest play, however, came with just over three minutes in the fourth quarter on a 3rd-and-4 when he made a one-handed catch for a 29-yard gain. Four plays later, Washington kicked a 45-yard field to take a 20-17 lead. Sims finished the game with 92 yards.
As good as Sims was, Thomas was even better. He had the best game of his career by catching all nine of his targets for 98 yards and a touchdown, which came with nine minutes left in the fourth quarter and tied the game 17-17. He also had a 30-yarder that set up Barber's touchdown in the third quarter.
But Thomas' performance extended beyond his receiving numbers; he was delivering blocks to extend running plays and recovered a fumble, which would have given the Steelers the ball at Washington's 36-yard line.
4. The defense came up big in the fourth quarter.
The score was tied, 17-17, and Washington was in desperate need of a stop. Roethlisberger had driven the Steelers down to Washington's 37-yard line, but the pressure, which Washington had been bringing all night, was finally getting to the veteran. Young forced an incompletion to bring up a second down, and after Roethlisberger completed a nine-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger's missed on another shot to the veteran receiver.
On a 4th-and-1 with just under five minutes left to play, Roethlisberger could not complete a pass to Anthony McFarland, forcing a turnover on downs. Washington then drove 45 yards down the field and ended the nine-play drive with Dustin Hopkins giving the team a three-point lead.
5. Washington stays alive in the NFC East race.
Washington already knew it needed to play well in its upcoming stretch against the Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, but the pressure had increased with the New York Giants upsetting the Seahawks Sunday afternoon. The Giants hold a tiebreaker with Washington after winning both games against the team earlier in the season.
But after delivering an upset of its own to the previously undefeated Steelers, Washington remains in playoff contention with four games left. When Rivera was asked what the mood was like in the locker room after the win, the head coach replied, "Euphoria."
"These guys deserve it," Rivera said. "We have been down for such a long time and we're trying to rebuild ourselves and build up. This is something that we can build off of and just really proud of the way they played."
Rivera said people have learned two things about Washington: its players are resilient, and it can play evenly with teams like Pittsburgh. There are still several tests ahead of Washington before the end of the season, but Rivera continues to preach that the only thing his team needs to worry about is itself.
"It's interesting because one of the things that we talked about was taking care of our business, and we'll worry about what we need to do as opposed to worrying about everybody else," Rivera said. "And that's the thing, we got to continue to focus on us and just work on getting better."