LANDOVER, Md. – This one was won in the first half. By the defense.
Yes, on a night when Ben Roethlisberger passed for 300 yards and three touchdowns, and Le'Veon Bell rushed for 126 yards and two more touchdowns; on the night when Antonio Brown's business was booming against a Redskins secondary primed to shut him down, and the Steelers offense was 11-for-16 on possession downs and a perfect 3-for-3 in the red zone, the credit for setting the stage for this 1-0 start goes to the defense.
On the Friday before this trip to FedEx Field, Coach Mike Tomlin was asked to explain how the regular season opener might be a bit of a different style of game. He didn't hesitate. "It is different," he said, "and the most significant way it's different – and I have shared this with the team over the past few days – is it's less about the opponent you play and what they're capable of doing to you, and it's more about you being you and minimizing the negativity that we do to ourselves."
When this game started, and the season with it, the Steelers offense looked nothing like it did in that preseason game against the Saints, and because that one half of the preseason game against the Saints was the unit's cameo of the summer, the Steelers offense looked nothing like a unit that's supposed to be a winning edge for this team.
The Steelers won the coin toss and elected to defer their choice until the second half, and the cautionary nature of the move turned out to be justified based on how things unfolded from there.
The Redskins made a couple of first downs upon receiving the opening kickoff, but Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt created a 4-yard loss on a running play by Matt Jones to set up a third-and-long that a Kirk Cousins-to-Jordan Reed pass couldn't convert. Washington punted, and the Steelers went three-and-out.
The defense was back on the field in less than two minutes of game clock time, and on the second play there had to be a mistake somewhere, somehow, because Ryan Shazier ended up running with DeSean Jackson all the way across the field. Cousins took advantage with an accurate little pass that turned into a 31-yard gain, but over the next six plays, when the defense stiffened and allowed only 18 more yards, the Redskins first trip into the red zone ended with a 31-yard field goal.
The Steelers offense then took the field following the kickoff and turned the ball over, it coming on an interception by Brashaud Breeland that he returned 26 yards to the Pittsburgh 37-yard line. Again the defense prevented the situation from spiraling out of control. The Redskins got to the 20-yard line, but then a false start penalty was followed by a couple of solid downs in coverage on the next two plays and it was just another field goal. It was only 6-0, a deficit still within reach of one windup of Roethlisberger's arm, instead of 14-0 or 10-0, which is not where you want to be in the first quarter of the opener.
"Defense did a nice job making them settle for three until we could get our feet under us offensively," said Tomlin after the game. "You know, that's kind of been our MO. I would've liked to maybe keep them out of there, but the guys did a nice job of mixing calls and being competitive and winning the necessary downs. That kind of defined us a year ago. Hopefully it's still a strength of ours in terms of being able to stand up when the field is short. That point swing is significant. It was significant for us tonight to hold them to three a couple of times."
That point swing was very significant. From the Steelers' standpoint, at 6-0 the deficit was manageable, minimal in fact when viewed in light of the offense going three-and-out and then turning the ball over on its first two possessions of the season. Not that these Steelers are going to panic after one bad quarter in September, but one bad quarter certainly can be the difference between winning and losing a particular game. And if the Steelers are serious about hosting playoff games instead of having to hit the road for them, then winning this particular game was a step in the right direction.
Game action from Week 1 against the Washington Redskins on Monday Night Football.
There were defensive lapses, for sure, with a seven-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that ended early in the fourth quarter looking particularly easy as the Redskins cut their deficit to 24-16 with 13 minutes left in the game. But judging this defense on yards allowed, on completion percentage allowed, is to miss the point. It's true that the Redskins gained 384 total net yards and their quarterback completed 69.8 percent of his passes, but the Steelers did a good job defending the possession downs and their own goal line. Washington converted 3-of-12 (25 percent) on third/fourth downs and was just 1-of-4 in the red zone.
Keeping the point total within reach of this offense, especially early in a game, is a winning formula for these Steelers, especially early in a season when it's so important to limit the bleeding from those self-inflicted wounds teams are likely to sustain through September.
That's how this defense should be viewed. On whether it can make enough plays in critical moments to be part of a winning formula. Not on some standard that's born of a notion of what "good defense" is supposed to look like.
Because the only standard that matters is winning. Like they did here on the opening Monday night of the season.