LANDOVER, Md. — As John Beck nursed his strained groin on the sideline, Rex Grossman jogged to the end zone for his first in-game audition for the Washington Redskins' starting quarterback job. A punt from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Daniel Sepulveda had pinned the first-string offense at its own 1-yard line and a collective groan seemed to emerge from the 68,320 fans at FedEx Field.
Unfazed, Grossman took the first snap, faked a handoff and connected with Santana Moss on a skinny post. The Redskins marched all the way to the Pittsburgh 13, where Shayne Graham missed his first field goal attempt with the team. While the drive failed to put Washington on the board, it did give Grossman an impressive first jab in his fight for the starting job.
"I felt about as comfortable as I've ever felt in this offense tonight," he said. "Everything kind of slowed down for me a little bit and for whatever reason, it just felt really comfortable for me."
Grossman, new running back Tim Hightower and the first-team defense all played deep into the first half Friday night as the Redskins upended the defending AFC Champion Steelers 16-7 in the preseason opener. Santana Moss caught Washington's lone touchdown pass in the first half while Graham Gano added a trio of field goals. The Redskins notched 452 total yards, their most in the preseason since Aug. 3, 2002 against San Francisco.
Offensive numbers aside, head coach Mike Shanahan was most pleased with his team's effort on defense and all-around focus on the field. Washington held Pittsburgh to just 186 total yards and committed only three penalties.
"There's got to be a great concentration level to eliminate those penalties and I thought we had that," he said. "To eliminate those types of mistakes, a lot of people have to be thinking the same thing ... hopefully we keep on doing that."
With Beck out, Grossman and Kellen Clemens split repetitions under center. Grossman played the entire half and finished 19 of 26 for 207 yards and one touchdown, while Clemens completed 9 of his 17 passes for 105 yards. John Beck did not play but will almost certainly play next Friday against Indianapolis.
"Could he have played? Yeah, but it would've been a risk," Shanahan said. "The groin was so tight, we felt like if he would go full speed he would pull it. [But] if it was a regular season game, would we have taken the chance? I'm not sure."
While many of Pittsburgh's starters were pulled after the first series, Grossman comfortably picked apart the defense and received praise from teammates after the game for his poise in the pocket. Nine of his passes were directed toward Moss, who caught seven of them for 64 yards — including the touchdown.
"He's, in my opinion, a quarterback's best friend. He understands where the holes are in the defense and he broke some routes off hot knowing that protection was bad," Grossman said.
Hightower also meshed well with his new team after joining the Redskins less than two weeks ago. The former Arizona Cardinal averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Washington's first possession and finished with 44 yards on 10 carries in the game. Most importantly, he felt like he "[got] into a pretty good rhythm" and fit in with team's one-cut running scheme.
"Well normally with running backs you can't evaluate them until you put them in a game situation," Shanahan explained. "I felt very good about Hightower when we traded for him; he didn't disappoint me today."
"I love it man, I love this system," Hightower echoed. "I feel like I'm right where I need to be."
The new-look Redskins defense also played well, though most of their action came against the Steelers' backups. Stephen Bowen had a sack in his first game as a Redskin, while Ryan Kerrigan and Barry Cofield combined for a nice stop on a 3rd-and-1 in the second quarter. They did, however, surrender a sloppy 22-yard touchdown run by backup running back Isaac Redman. Redman broke one tackle and spun around another to get to the outside and tie the game.
Washington's special teams unit was iffy, providing both highlights and lowlights in the game. Graham hurt his chances at the kicking job by shanking a 29-yard attempt wide left after the first drive and then another 45-yarder later in the game. Gano, meanwhile, converted all three of his field goal attempts from 32, 34 and 45 yards.
"Everybody has a bad night, and I'm sure he [Graham] will bounce back," Gano said.
Brandon Banks also had a few nice returns in the first half, including a 58-yard burst after a kickoff deep into his own end zone. His return was the only kickoff that didn't result in a touchback, continuing a league-wide trend that has developed with this season's new kickoff rules.
Shanahan was hesitant to discuss his impressions of the reserves before watching the tape Saturday morning. But he did say that overall, he was pleased with the team's focus and ability to eliminate mistakes. Most importantly, the Redskins escaped Friday night's game without any significant injuries, a particularly impressive feat after the lockout and abbreviated offseason that came with it.
"The first preseason game, regardless of whether there's a lockout, you haven't played real, tackle, live football since last January," safety Reed Doughty said. "You've got to go out there and say can I still do this? That's what is exciting about it."
NOTES: Friday night's game was played cleanly, as only five total penalties were committed and neither team had a turnover. ... CB Josh Wilson went down with an injury in the second quarter, grabbing his leg; the injury is not considered serious and he returned later in the game. ... Shanahan said that tight end Chris Cooley is "still pretty sore" and that he'll miss "a couple weeks."
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