- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 28, 2004

Life only gets tougher today for the Washington Redskins.

Coming off a 28-6 defeat at Philadelphia, the club’s first blowout loss of the season, the Redskins hit the road to face the only team to beat — not to mention embarrass — the Eagles: the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Months of mounting frustration boiled over in Washington’s post-game locker room at Lincoln Financial Field. Now the Redskins (3-7), entrenched as one of the NFL’s worst teams and spiraling toward playoff elimination, must regroup and find the emotion necessary to compete with the talented Steelers (9-1) at Heinz Field.

“It comes back to the level of competition,” nose tackle Joe Salave’a said this week. “If we’re the team that we say we are, we’ll rise to the occasion.”

At least Salave’a hopes. Pretty much every power ranking in the country considers Pittsburgh the NFL’s top team. The only legitimate contenders to the throne — the 9-1 New England Patriots and 9-1 Eagles — were crushed by a combined 61-23 at Pittsburgh over eight days in late October and early November.

The Steelers didn’t just win those games; they dominated on both sides of the ball. Pittsburgh racked up a cumulative 473-28 advantage in rushing yards and nearly 50 more minutes in time of possession.

Thus it is a potential juggernaut that today awaits the Redskins, who rank dead last in the NFL in scoring and have lost two straight, three of four and seven of nine.

“They’re a great team, but I think we can play with them,” quarterback Patrick Ramsey said. “I really do.”

Ramsey, who today makes his second start of the season, provides much of the limited hope that Washington can transform itself during the stretch run.

Quarterback Mark Brunell, who sank to the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories during his nine starts, is considered the biggest reason for Washington’s record. Ramsey’s strong arm could permit the Redskins to finally cross the 20-point barrier (their season-high is 18 points) and beat a legitimate team (their three wins were over teams now a combined 12-20).

Critics contend that coach Joe Gibbs gave Ramsey an overly conservative game plan at Philadelphia and thus virtually no chance to beat the Eagles. But after throwing five interceptions and taking seven sacks in two relief appearances (a total of about four quarters of play), Ramsey tossed just one pick (on a tipped ball) and took one sack in his first start.

Today the young passer would like to complete a few of the deep tosses that just missed at Philadelphia. But he continues to emphasize the sound, efficient manner in which he ran the offense last week.

“My focus is wherever the read takes me,” Ramsey said. “Certainly to manage the game in bad situations, to keep us from third-and-long situations, to keep us from turnovers — that will keep us in the game with the way the defense has been playing.”

Of course, Pittsburgh also boasts a top defense — in fact, the league’s top-ranked unit. The Steelers run a fast, unnerving 3-4 set that attacks from all angles and plays well against the run and the pass.

It was only a few weeks ago that Washington owned the NFL’s No. 1 defensive ranking, but Gregg Williams’ unit has fallen on relative hard times. After limiting the first six opponents to 232.5 yards a game and averaging 2.7 sacks, the Redskins have permitted 333.3 yards and recorded an average of just 1.5 sacks the past four games.

With defensive end Phillip Daniels, linebacker LaVar Arrington, linebacker Mike Barrow and safety Matt Bowen missing much or all of the season, and with defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin out last week, it would be easy for the defense to rationalize its slide. But players sound determined to outperform their Steelers counterparts.

“It’s a pride check mostly,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We’ve felt like we haven’t held up our end of the bargain lately. Yeah, they’ve taken over number one, but we feel like we’ve given it away. … We want to go out and prove that we’re still the team we started the year as.”

If that’s to happen, the Redskins must find a way to get tough and stay tough for the full 60 minutes. A missed field goal early in the fourth quarter at Philadelphia led to collapse and the face-reddening final score. Today, against a club that has won eight straight and reclaimed its run- and defense-oriented roots, Washington must prove it can, as Salave’a forecast, “rise to the occasion.”

“It’s going to be a brutal, brutal contest,” Pittsburgh native and assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel said. “That team typifies the city of Pittsburgh — hard hats, blue collar, and knock the stuffing out of you.”

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