The Steelers and Redskins open the first Monday night of the season
The 47th season of Monday Night Football begins with the Pittsburgh Steelers traveling to the nation’s capital for a matchup against the Washington Redskins. This is just the third meeting between these two teams since the 2008 season, and the recent trend in this series has favored Pittsburgh. The Steelers have won five in a row over the Redskins, including a Monday night game in 2008 (23-6).
Both teams enter this matchup with high expectations. Washington claimed the NFC East title last year with a 9-7 mark and is looking for back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1996-97. Quarterback Kirk Cousins shined in his first full year as the starter, throwing for 4,166 yards and 29 scores. However, Cousins is still in prove-it mode, as he was unable to agree to a long-term extension with the Redskins this offseason. More improvement from Cousins could propel Washington to another NFC East title, and it certainly didn’t hurt this team added lockdown corner Josh Norman after he was released by Carolina.
After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Pittsburgh has rebounded with consecutive trips to the playoffs. The Steelers finished 10-6 last year, defeated Cincinnati in the wild card game and nearly knocked off Denver in the divisional round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh is one of the front-runners in the AFC, and in typical Steeler fashion, the team didn’t make a ton of noise in free agency. In fact, the top signing this offseason — tight end Ladarius Green — is on the PUP list to start 2016. While Pittsburgh didn’t make many roster additions, this team is primed for a Super Bowl run with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown leading the way.
Pittsburgh at Washington
Kickoff: Monday, Sept. 12 at 7:10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Washington’s Passing Game vs. Pittsburgh’s Secondary
The 2016 version of Pittsburgh’s defense certainly won’t be confused for the Steel Curtain groups. The Steelers ranked fifth in the NFL against the run last season but were 30th against the pass and 21st in total yards allowed. This Pittsburgh defense will give up yards but can generate pressure on the quarterback (48 sacks in 2015) and force turnovers (30 takeaways last year). However, the Steelers will be tested against the pass on Monday night, as Cousins completed 69.8 percent of his throws last year, and the Redskins return a solid group of receiving options. Cousins likes to target tight end Jordan Reed (87 receptions), and Jamison Crowder, DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon will be tough matchups for a Pittsburgh secondary that is searching for improvement in 2016. Draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis will be counted on to play key snaps on Monday night, along with newly acquired Justin Gilbert. William Gay and Ross Cockrell are entrenched as the team’s top corners, but the Redskins will test the depth and overall ability of the next options. Will Washington have its way in the passing game? Or can the Steelers create enough pressure with their front seven to minimize the pressure on the secondary?
2. The Ground Game
Both teams enter this game at less than full strength at running back. For Pittsburgh, Le’Veon Bell is suspended for the first three games of 2016, but the Steelers’ ground attack is still in good shape with the return of DeAngelo Williams. The veteran led the team with 907 yards and 11 rushing scores last season and is slated to handle the No. 1 role for the first three games. For Washington, starter Matt Jones has been dealing with a shoulder injury and could be less than 100 percent for the opener. If Jones needs a rest, the Redskins would have to turn to Rob Kelley or Chris Thompson, who have combined for less than 50 career carries in the NFL. The Steelers didn’t have a drop in production on the ground with Williams handling the No. 1 role last year, but Bell’s versatility and big-play ability out of the backfield will be missed. Will the Redskins get a full workload out of Jones? There’s plenty of intrigue here for both teams on Monday night.
3. Pittsburgh’s Aerial Assault
Even with the season-long suspension of Martavis Bryant, the Steelers will have one of the NFL’s top passing attacks. Ben Roethlisberger missed four games due to injury last year, yet still finished 2015 with 3,938 passing yards and 21 scores. And it’s no secret Roethlisberger’s favorite target is Antonio Brown. He has eclipsed at least 110 catches in each of the last three years and is primed for another monster year as Roethlisberger’s go-to option. While Brown isn’t likely to be matched against Washington cornerback Josh Norman all night, any one-on-one battles between these players will be worth the price of admission. It’s impossible to totally eliminate Brown from the game plan, but the Redskins have to limit his big plays and force some of the other receivers to step up. With Bryant sidelined, the Steelers need a big year from Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Markus Wheaton is the team’s No. 2 receiver but is questionable with a shoulder injury. Additionally, this is a good opportunity for Jesse James to showcase his ability as the starting tight end with Ladarius Green sidelined indefinitely. Whether it’s via the secondary or pass rush, can Washington find ways to slow down Roethlisberger and Brown?
A high-scoring affair is expected on Monday night between these two teams, as the over/under is projected around 50 points for one of the highest marks in Week 1. With the long-term contract uncertainty hanging over Cousins, there’s pressure to deliver and show 2015 was no fluke. The Steelers’ secondary is ripe to surrender some yards and could struggle to contain Washington’s passing game. However, will the Redskins have enough answers on defense to slow Roethlisberger, Williams and Brown? The Steelers have more balance on offense and find a way to make one key stop on defense to earn the victory and a 1-0 start to 2016.