PITTSBURGH — Catching the football is one of the sport’s most basic elements. Winning depends on it. No offense can gain yards without doing it. And the skill is just as much mental as it is physical. See the ball in the air. Get your hands on it. Secure it before turning to run. Simple enough.
So when professional football players drop passes, it’s rip-the-hair-out-of-your-head stuff. Coaches spend all week designing plays to get receivers open, only for success turn to failure on game day because of a player’s lapse in concentration.
That’s why the dejection was amplified inside the Washington Redskins‘ locker room Sunday. Their high-powered offense sputtered in a 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers largely because of dropped passes on a rainy, raw afternoon. Coach Mike Shanahan counted 10 drops, each a speed bump that helped keep the Redskins in first gear.
“Disappointed in a number of opportunities that we had and plays we didn’t make on both sides of the football,” Shanahan said. “You can’t have that many drops that you had and keep drives going. We had some opportunities and had the potential for a number of big plays, and you’ve got to make those plays against this type of defense.”
Washington (3-5) reached the midpoint of the season with its most lopsided defeat. The Redskins led in the fourth quarter in six of their first seven games, and they were tied in the other. Not Sunday, though.
Familiar breakdowns in pass defense combined with the offense’s worst performance of the season, and the result was a game Pittsburgh controlled from the opening kickoff. The Steelers, with equally effective running and passing games, scored on each of their first four possessions to take a 20-6 halftime lead.
But we’re used to this from the defense. Ultimately, the 27 points Washington allowed actually were a point better than its season average.
This one ended up so sour because the Redskins‘ offense lacked its typical potency. Their formula for competitiveness this season includes an offense that can match scores with the opponent, but that was not the case on this day.
Shanahan’s biggest gripe was the dropped passes. Receiver Leonard Hankerson had a sure touchdown reception in his hands at the Pittsburgh 2-yard line on Washington’s second possession, but he turned to the end zone before he secured the catch and dropped it.
Although Washington went on to finish that drive with its only touchdown, that established a toxic trend.
There were many culprits. Receivers Joshua Morgan and Santana Moss dropped passes. So did fullback Darrel Young and running back Evan Royster. Quarterback Robert Griffin III still helped generate some big plays, but it kept coming back to the drops.
“If you touch the ball, you’re taught to catch it,” Young said. “All those drops are on us. Robert gave us a chance.”
Young’s moment of shame was a shallow crossing route in the second half. Sunday’s final outcome didn’t turn on that play, but it exemplified everything that went wrong for a unit that entered the game ranked best in the NFL in yards per play.
“I didn’t look it in completely,” Young lamented. “I thought I had it, was trying to make a move too fast. That’s usually the case when guys drop the balls.”
In Shanahan’s postgame analysis, the drops crept into each of the Redskins‘ shortcomings: the 3-for-12 third-down conversion rate; the season-low 255 total yards; the 4.5 yards-per-play average, when they entered the game averaging 6.4. Shanahan refused to attribute the drops to the bad weather.
Many drops occurred on imperfect passes that forced the receiver to reach behind him, jump or slide, but the unanimous sentiment inside the Redskins‘ locker room was that Griffin’s ball placement was not to blame.
“I don’t care where the placement is,” Shanahan said. “As long as it hits your hands, you’d better catch it or else you won’t be in the National Football League for very long.”
Griffin vowed to be critical of his accuracy when he reviews the game. He finished 16 of 34 for 177 yards and a touchdown, good for a passer rating of 72.8.
“I’m going to have to look at it on the film and say, ‘Hey, I could have gave him a better ball here, a better ball there,’” he said. “But like I told them: We’re all working in this thing together. It’s not one guy’s fault ever. We just have to make sure we go out and execute better.”
Execute better — the Redskins keep saying that. Halfway through a season that is starting to slip through their fingers, it has yet to catch on.