The Pittsburgh Steelers have made the postseason 16 times in 24 seasons, played in four Super Bowls and won two of them since 1992. That was also the last time the Washington Redskins made the playoffs in consecutive years.
When the two teams meet at FedEx Field on Monday night, it will be a matchup of one of the NFL’s most reliable franchises versus one trying to shed a circus image that has slowly begun to change under second-year general manager Scot McCloughan.
For the Redskins, this season is about proving that they are finally building a sustainable winner. For the Steelers, 2016 is about regaining their perch atop the NFL following last year’s tight AFC divisional playoff loss to Denver, the eventual Super Bowl champion.
“More Super Bowl titles,” Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said when asked his goals at age 34. “Having two is great, but I think every year every team should be striving to win it. I want to win as many as I can.”
The Steelers and Redskins don’t meet often. They haven’t played at FedEx Field since 2008. But that night was an embarrassment for Washington – a 23-6 loss on “Monday Night Football” where Pittsburgh fans appeared to outnumber the home supporters.
In all, the Steelers have won five in a row in this series. But the Redskins are out to prove that last year’s 9-7 season and playoff berth weren’t flukes – even if some veteran players acknowledge they were products of a bad division in 2015.
“We have a great opportunity to go be effective and play well and that’s exciting and something for our fans to be excited about,” Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “But, we’ve got to go out and prove it. We’ve got to go out and play well and right now, it’s just talk and it doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Monday’s game presents many intriguing matchups, however. None is bigger than Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, the league’s highest-paid player at his position, and Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown, who tied for the NFL in receptions last season with 136.
“When you look at a wide receiver in the NFL, you don’t have to stop nowhere other than Antonio Brown,” Norman said. “It starts and it ends with him. That’s going to be a tall task to take on.”
Pittsburgh is without star running back La’Veon Bell (three-game suspension) and wide receiver Martavis Bryant (one-year suspension). Those are concerns. As is a relatively young secondary that will have to slow a Redskins passing offense featuring DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder. That doesn’t even include first-round pick Josh Doctson (left Achilles tendon), who returned to practice this week.
Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton also has been ruled out because of a shoulder injury. Pittsburgh will go to Washington with four receivers: Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey. Either Coates or Heyward-Bey will replace Wheaton in the starting lineup.
“I think the first game is less about the people that you play and more about doing you,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Us being detail-oriented from an assignment standpoint, playing hard and communicating well.”
Washington made it through the regular season relatively unscathed., It lost outside linebacker Junior Galette (torn right Achilles tendon) before camp even began. But Doctson is back practicing and running back Matt Jones (separated left shoulder) is expected to play after practicing with full contact on Wednesday. Otherwise, the Redskins are healthy save for defensive end Kendall Reyes (groin).
But Washington didn’t beat a single playoff team last season en route to nine wins.
No other NFC East team made it and two divisions rival (New York Giants, Philadelphia) fired their coaches. The Redskins were outclassed by Super Bowl contenders Carolina and New England in the second half of the season and decisively beaten by Green Bay in the NFC wild-card round at home.
The Steelers provide an opportunity to beat one of those reliable contenders early in the season. For Washington coach Gruden, it is a measuring stick.
“(Pittsburgh does) a great job in-house scouting and developing their guys and bringing guys into that building,” Gruden said. “They’ve been good for a long time for a reason. They have a great scouting staff, a great coaching staff, and they’re very dangerous all across the board – receiver, if a running back goes down, they’ve got another one coming up. They just keep refueling.”