- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2020

As blood gushed from his leg, flowing down his white cleat, Washington quarterback Alex Smith stood calmly, letting the trainer wrap his injury. The cut was to Smith’s left, his non-surgically repaired, leg.

Afterward, the Washington quarterback continued as if nothing had happened.

The sequence encapsulated much of Monday’s 23-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers: The team took damage and fought on. In the process, Washington overcame a 14-point deficit to pull off a stunning upset over the NFL’s lone remaining undefeated team — helping keep pace in the NFC East.

Washington linebacker Jon Bostic picked off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with under two minutes left, just moments after kicker Dustin Hopkins nailed a 45-yarder to give the team the lead. The play was in large part due to pass rusher Montez Sweat, who tipped the pass — giving Bostic an opportunity to come down with it. Hopkins hit another 45-yarder for the final score.

Washington improved to 5-7, the same record as the division-leading New York Giants. New York holds the tiebreaker, but Monday’s victory was crucial for Washington to stay competitive in the race.

More so, the win was another indication that Washington, winner of three straight, is starting to find its footing under coach Ron Rivera.

“They played their (butts) off,” Rivera said, later adding, “These are a bunch of young guys that are learning how to play with some veterans sprinkled in there at the right positions. We’re growing and we’re learning.”

“This is the football we’ve wanted to play since Day 1,” Sweat said.

Here’s what progress looks like: Washington’s defense held Pittsburgh to a season-low in points. Logan Thomas (nine catches, 98 yards) and Cam Sims (five catches, 92 yards) emerged as needed weapons. Smith, with his 296 yards, looked a reliable option at quarterback — not always a given for this franchise.

As the final horn sounded, Rivera greeted his players in the end zone, congratulating them there instead of waiting for the locker room. All week, the coach had seen the Steelers as a test of how Washington would perform against the league’s best. He was proud of the way his players had dominated Dallas on Thanksgiving the week before, but acknowledged that facing Pittsburgh on the road was a “different kind of stage.”

The Steelers, after all, were undefeated for good reason. They have a ferocious defensive line with star pass rusher T.J. Watt, who leads the league in sacks. The Steelers came into the game with the league’s most efficient defense, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.

And after missing most of last season with an elbow injury, Roethlisberger’s return this year has reenergized an offense loaded with playmakers.

On Monday, Washington wasn’t fazed at all by the obstacles in its way.

The franchise was dealt a blow early on when rookie running back Antonio Gibson limped off with a toe injury. The 21-year-old, who dazzled with a three-touchdown performance in Dallas, would not return. Without him, Washington’s rushing attack struggled to get going, finishing with just 45 yards.

That wasn’t the only problem.

As the Steelers took control with a 14-0 lead, Washington helped dig the hole by committing too many mistakes. There were special teams penalties. Players failed to make stops on third down, leading to Roethlisberger converting a lengthy drive for Pittsburgh’s first score.

Washington defenders missed tackles and gave up big plays, like when cornerback Kendall Fuller and Deshazor Everett whiffed as James Washington broke free for a 50-yard touchdown.

But Washington stiffened.

Rivera said he told his team that to play with the best, they had to “bow our necks” and match the intensity. “That’s how you play these good teams,” he said. “You try to play their game.”

Washington did exactly that. With 5:31 left in the first half, the defense came up with a huge goal-line stand. After stopping the Steelers for three straight plays, Chase Young came flying off the edge to wrap up running back Benny Snell to force the turnover on downs.

In the second half, Washington’s physicality took over. The team forced Roethlisberger out of the pocket with pressure. The team took away screens, a staple of Pittsburgh’s offense, and raced to the ball. Over the last two quarters, Washington allowed just 115 yards on 30 plays — 3.8 yards per play, down from 5.7 yards in the first half.

“We didn’t get a sack today, but our defensive line dominated,” Young said. “I don’t know how many rushing yards they had, but it couldn’t have been much.”

He’s right: the Steelers had just 21 yards on 14 carries.

Washington’s slow-starting offense also found eventually found a rhythm, finally getting on the board just before halftime. Smith hit Sims for 30 yards, which put Washington in field goal range and paved the way for a 49-yarder.

To start the third, Smith engineered one of Washington’s longest drives of the season. Over the course of 14 plays that lasted more than eight minutes, the quarterback stayed patient and took what was available as Washington moved down the field. He even showed off his veteran awareness on fourth-and-goal by throwing to a covered J.D. McKissic, who was being held by Watt — prompting the official to throw a flag and give the team a new set of downs. Washington punched it in with Peyton Barber on the very next play.

Washington finally tied the game when Smith found a wide-open Thomas for a 15-yard touchdown. The team took the lead when Hopkins’ 45-yarder was set up by a deep 29-yard reception from Sims.

Those contributions were even more impressive considering Washington was without Gibson and star wideout Terry McLaurin had a relatively quiet night with only two catches for 14 yards.

Washington’s noisy post-game locker room was abuzz with energy, as players gloried in one of the biggest wins of recent franchise history. Rivera called the atmosphere “euphoric” and said the victory was one of the most special in his career.

According to NFL Research, Washington had the worst record (4-7) of any team to beat a club that entered the game 11-0 or better.

“We’re going to remember this,” Hopkins said, “for a long, long time.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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