November 5, 2008

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time


On their way to a convincing win over the Redskins on Monday night, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated defensively and did just enough offensively to close the deal. The 23-6 final was just, and left no doubt as to which was the better team midway through the 2008 season.

It also provided emphatic answers to some key midseason questions about the upstarts from the nation’s capital.

Half way through his debut season, rookie Head Coach Jim Zorn has already exceeded all reasonable expectations. Given how quickly he has settled into the role, and delivered a team few figured to be a factor in 2008 into position for a playoff run, it is fair and reasonable to begin to speculate about his becoming a successful, if not elite, NFL head coach.

But the Steelers made it clear he’s not there yet.

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, with his 35 years of NFL coaching experience, Super Bowl credentials (SB XL) and architect of one of the perennially elite defenses in the league, drove that message home. LeBeau schooled Zorn on Monday night; out-scheming, out-playcalling and outmaneuvering him from start to finish.

I never once got the sense the Redskins offense was dictating the flow of play. Quite the opposite. When Clinton Portis ran—left, right or center—the Steelers were waiting for him, often en masse.

And when Jason Campbell dropped to pass, the Steelers rush was on him too quickly to allow him to set and throw on rhythm, or, on the rare occasions he did find time, it was clear he could find no options downfield.

The Steelers definitely have good players on defense—but this wasn’t about that. The Redskins offense has some pretty good players of its own. Without putting too fine a point on it, what happened Monday night was as thorough a job of schematic and play-calling domination as you’re likely to see in today’s NFL.

LeBeau sent the rookie coach a clear message Monday night:

"Not yet."

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that in his short time as an NFL head coach, Jim Zorn has shown himself to be a quick study, capable of honest self-analysis and effective adjustment. There’s no shame in getting schooled by Dick LeBeau—he’s been doing it to the best of the best for a long time.

What would be a shame if is Jim Zorn doesn’t take the hard lessons learned Monday night and come out the other side a better coach.

Based on what we've seen so far, my strong sense is that won’t happen.

Jason Campbell has far exceeded expectations in 2008 as well. He’s been steady, at times brilliant, and showed promising signs of developing into an elite NFL quarterback.

But he came up short on Monday night.

One play in particular stands out. Early in the first quarter, already leading 3-0 after Pittsburgh’s unsuccessful onsides attempt on the opening kickoff led to a 44-yard Shaun Suisham field goal, the Redskins defense came up with the big turnover they’ve thirsted for the last several weeks. Cornelius Griffin swallowed up a deflected Ben Roethlisberger pass and the Redskins were in business at the Steelers’ 30.

On the next play, Campbell rolled right and had Santana Moss open behind the defense near the goal line. His pass was badly underthrown, however, and the Steelers knocked it away. Two plays and only five yards later, and Washington again had to settle for three.

What could and should have been huge early momentum, growing confidence and a 10-0 lead, instead turned into 6-0 lead and the feeling the Redskins were letting things slip away.

Yes, it was “just one play.” But it was the kind of play big time quarterbacks, in big time games where such opportunities are precious few, simply have to make. And it set the tone for a game in which Campbell would throw 43 passes, completing just 24 for 206 mostly cosmetic yards, get sacked seven times and never really appear in command; never dictate the flow of play but spend a long night reacting unsuccessfully to it.

Jason Campbell might make that one key play a hundred times over the next ten years. And he may yet grow into the kind of quarterback and leader that can carry his team on days it is otherwise overmatched.

I've written since since his first preseason game in 2004 I believed he has the tools, and as of today I’m still bullish on his putting it all together before he’s done.

But the Steelers made it clear he’s not there yet.

Defensively, as brilliantly as Washington defensive coordinator Greg Blache schemed the Steelers, and as brilliantly as his unit played through most the game, when the need was greatest and the opportunity clearest, they were unable to rise to the moment either.

There is no way to overstate the impact of the one play they did not make had on Monday night. In the second quarter, with the Redskins up 6-3 and doing a pretty good impression of a dominant defensive team themselves, Roethlisberger threw toward WR Santonio Holmes the right sideline.

Redskins CB Carlos Rogers, already having a stellar night, read the play perfectly and jumped in front of Holmes. With nothing standing between him, a game-changing play and a 13-3 Redskins lead but 40 yards of green, Rogers had the ball hit him square the hands … and slip through.

Intellect tells you one play doesn’t make the difference in a game. Your heart, and your gut, know one play often says it all.

Carlos Rogers is having a brilliant comeback year. But when the moment came to break through under the bright lights, he was not quite up to the task. Before the Redskins can take the next big step, that’s a play he, and his teammates, simply has to make.

So it was no one thing that did in the Redskins on Monday night, it was an accumulation.

Jim Zorn was officially welcomed to the NFL by an old master.

Jason Campbell was served a cold reminder that the line between solid game manager and franchise quarterback is a bright one.

The Redskins defense saw first hand the difference between a good defense and a great one.

The Steelers came to the Monday Night stage game-tested, composed, and showed they belonged from start to finish. When the plays were there to be made, they made them. The Redskins, for all their promise, showed their inexperience and allowed the bright lights to get in their eyes.

At 6-3, they are ahead of schedule by any reasonable measure. Having been humbled at home, however, mentally and physically, they have also been served notice that the road ahead remains a long, challenging climb.

What they learn from the experience, or don’t, will dictate how the rest of 2008 plays out and, should they qualify, whether or not they'll be ready for the far bigger stage of the NFL playoffs.


Big Redskin Daddy said...

Nice synopsis, my friend. As disappointing as the game Monday night was for all of us, it was probably better in the long run this season to have it happen now, and out of division.

We're still solidly in the thick of things, and I too believe we will fix what needs to be fixed and make some noise this post-season, to borrow your phrase.

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Seems to me every team has to go through a learning experience like the Skins did on MNF.

No matter what they say about "all games counting the same," which is true in the literal sense, I'll never believe there isn't a learning curve any team trying to break through to the big time has to go through when it comes to playing in showcase games.

The Zorn Redskins got their first taste of The Big Time against Pittsburgh as a team with expectations, and learned a hard lesson. It's up to them now to put the lesson to good use.

What's kinda cool is, we'll get a quick barometer on that in 10 days against those cursed Cowboys.

Lizkauai said...

Thanks for the read!
Yep, better the team be GOOD and not just LUCKY.
GOOD comes from learning and improving because of hard tests.
Go 'Skins!

Mark "Om" Steven said...

Absolutely, Liz. Zorn, Campbell and the entire offense definitely got bucked off the horse Monday night. We all know what they're *supposed* to do about that ... now it's a matter seeing whether they can, and if so, how soon.

Dallas in 10 days would be nice. :)

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