- The Washington Times - Monday, August 19, 2002

After two weeks of Arena ball, the Redskins played something resembling a real NFL game last night. By "real NFL game," I mean the kind that features an occasional punt. Actually, in this case, the punts were more than occasional, they were epidemic. Heck, the Redskinettes did less kicking in the first quarter than the Redskins and Steelers did.
This wasn't Osaka. This wasn't the Carolina Panthers, coming off a 1-15 season. This was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who almost always mean business and who were AFC runners-up last year. It takes more than a bunch of pretty pass plays to beat Pittsburgh. Bill Cowher didn't write the book on winning ugly, but let's face it, his teams do it about as well as anybody.
So in his home debut as Redskins coach, before 70,310 enthusiastic FedEx Field fans, Steve Spurrier got his first lesson in the NFL's School of Hard Knocks: zero Washington points in the first half and six turnovers in a 35-34 win that was essentially the work of second- and third- stringers.
"We weren't very good overall," Spurrier said, "but somehow those guys came up with one more point for whatever it's worth."
Not much, it would seem. The Steelers didn't treat this game like the Super Bowl, but after an indifferent performance in their preseason opener against the Jets, their minds were clearly on the task at hand. They went to the air on the very first play, blitzed when the situation warranted it and even sprang a reverse on the Redskins that went for a score.
The low point for the locals and there was plenty of competition for the honor was probably when the Pittsburgh backups, going against many of the Redskins' starters, nearly intercepted Sage Rosenfels twice in three plays late in the second quarter. Linebacker Clark Haggans couldn't quite hang onto the first pass, but cornerback Nijrel Eason grabbed the second and ran to the Washington 22 to set up a field goal.
"We can't get behind 24-0 or whatever it was in the regular season," said Rosenfels, who led the fourth-quarter rally. "But at least we kept fighting. Like that guy in 'Bull Durham' said, 'Winning is better than losing.'"
You'd be hard-pressed to find two coaches with more different offensive philosophies than Spurrier and Cowher. Bill, of course, is a former Marty Schottenheimer protege, which must have made last night's developments all the more galling to one Daniel M. Snyder. But if you've got a running back like Jerome Bettis and a defense like Pittsburgh's, boring can be beautiful or at least successful.
The funny thing is, the Steelers looked better throwing the ball in the first half when the regulars were out there than the Fun 'n' Gunners did. Hines Ward had a 22-yard catch-and-run to begin the proceedings, running back Chris Fuamatu-Ma'fala broke loose for 36 more on a perfectly executed screen play and Plaxico Burress tormented the Washington secondary repeatedly.
What a weapon this Burress is, especially around the goal line. With his size (6-5), wingspan and leaping ability, he's open even when he isn't open. Pittsburgh's Charlie Batch proved that by lobbing an alley-oop to him in the corner of the end zone in the second quarter. Fred Smoot was there, but he had to interfere with Burress to break up the pass and the official called him for it. On the next play, the Steelers went up 7-0.
It was eerily reminiscent of the way the Eagles' Harold Carmichael used to have his way with defensive backs in the '70s. Next to Harold, every DB was Mini-Me and it's pretty much the same with Plaxico. After a couple of completions to him, you could almost hear Spurrier saying, "Maybe we should get one of them tall fellers. Enough with these 5-10 and 5-11 Gators [like Jacquez Green and Reidel Anthony]."
Granted, the Redskins were playing without injured Chris Samuels, a major blow to an offensive line that's trying to absorb three new members. And yes, Spurrier's offense is still very much a work in progress. But the club's problems last night ran much deeper than that.
The Steelers, for instance, found enough holes in Washington's first defensive unit to drive 83 and 99 yards for touchdowns. Given the talent the Redskins have on that side of the ball and all the dough they're paying for it Marvin Lewis can't be too pleased. It's great if you can knock the other team's quarterback out of the game, as LaVar Arrington did to Kordell Stewart with a noggin-rattling hit, but you can't let the No.2 guy step in and pick you apart. (Batch's near-perfect stats: nine attempts, eight completions, 118 yards, one TD.)
If the games against San Francisco and Carolina were two steps forward, the one last night was a decided step back. And now the Redskins have to close out the preseason against two teams Tampa Bay and New England that bear a striking resemblance to Pittsburgh. Wonder if those games will be any more "Fun."
Oh, well, no one said this was going to be easy.

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