Plenty of passes on tap for MNF
ASHBURN, Va. – After the customary season-opening flyover, keep your eyes in the air when the Pittsburgh Steelers visit the Washington Redskins.
Ben Roethlisberger and Kirk Cousins will go pass for pass in the Monday night matchup at FedEx Field. With questions in the running game on each side, look for Roethlisberger to air it out to All-Pro Antonio Brown and Co., Cousins to do the same to receiver DeSean Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed.
The Steelers are without running back Le’Veon Bell, suspended the first three games for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. The Redskins will rely on Matt Jones to be their No. 1 back for the first time, but he’s coming off a separated left shoulder. Guess it’s a good thing Roethlisberger and Cousins have plenty of weapons to throw to.
“It’s exciting,” Cousins said Wednesday. “We’ve said it, I remember, since the spring, that there’s only one football to go around and my job is to be a good distributor, get the ball in their hands and let them see what they can do.”
Pittsburgh’s ground game can still keep Washington honest, but the matchup to watch is Brown vs. All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. This is the first time they’re facing each other since 2014, when Norman was in Carolina and before he became a star and signed a $75 million, five-year deal with the Redskins.
“That’s going to be a tall task to take on, and I respect 110 percent and looking forward to what he brings, because that matchup obviously is going to be a physical one and it’s going to be a fun one,” Norman said. “I have nothing but respect for that guy.”
Norman also gushed about his respect for Roethlisberger, who has thrown for 42,995 yards and 272 touchdowns in his career. “Big Ben” keeps on ticking, even with all the hitting.
“It’s one of those things, you’re constantly learning and evolving, trying to understand the offense, get the ball out of your hands, call a quick pass,” Roethlisberger said.
Cousins threw for 29 touchdowns and a franchise-record 4,166 yards last season, but comes into 2016 with something to prove, playing on the franchise tag. Pittsburgh certainly isn’t underestimating Cousins.
“I don’t know what people are looking for,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He threw for over 4,000 yards and over 25 touchdowns. The last six games of the season his quarterback rating was over 100. He needs no endorsement from me.”
Here’s what else to watch for on Monday night between the Steelers and Redskins:
STILL RUNNING: For most teams, losing an All-Pro caliber back like Bell would be lethal. Not Pittsburgh, which will rely on seemingly ageless 33-year-old DeAngelo Williams until Bell returns. All Williams did a year ago when Bell was hurt was tie for the league lead with 11 rushing touchdowns, average 4.5 yards a carry and catch a career-high 40 passes. “DeAngelo does not lack confidence by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s what you want,” Roethlisberger said. “You want a guy who is going to step up and be ready to go, try not to miss a beat. Last year, he showed what he can do, and I think we’ll see the same thing.”
START RUNNING: The Redskins’ running game struggled in 2015 and Alfred Morris is now in Dallas. Jones and undrafted rookie Robert Kelley are tasked with running the ball, but improving the unit is a team effort that includes Cousins, the tight ends and the offensive line. “It’s a great challenge for us, especially against this defense,” coach Jay Gruden said. “They always have been pretty dang good against the run. I was in Cincinnati for three years playing against them, and you feel like beating your head against the wall calling a running play against them sometimes.”
MORE THAN NORMAN: Before the Redskins signed Norman, Bashaud Breeland was penciled in as their top cornerback. He might be among the best No. 2 cornerbacks around and should see a lot of Brown because Gruden hinted that Washington will keep Norman on one side and not shadow. “We’re going to count on him in a big way,” Gruden said recently of Breeland. “He understands that, he accepts that and he’s going to do great.”
FRESH BLOOD: The Steelers have spent the last four months aggressively trying to patch up a secondary that ranked 30th against the pass. Pittsburgh used its top two draft picks on defensive backs (cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis) and even acquired 2014 first-round pick Justin Gilbert from Cleveland over the weekend. Davis could be used in nickel packages as Pittsburgh tries to figure out a way to slow down Reed.
TERRIBLE TOWELS: Remembering how Steelers fans took over FedEx Field in 2008, the Redskins are giving out burgundy rally towels to counteract the famous “Terrible Towels” that could be prominent. “The fans travel well for the Steelers,” ex-Pittsburgh and current Washington defensive lineman Ziggy Hood said. “I just hope we have a little bit more of our fans than we do Steelers.”