The Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins will do battle on Monday Night Football, and to get a glimpse of what fans are thinking on the other side of the fence I was able to ask Alex Rowsey, staff writer at SB Nation's Redskins Blog, Hogs Haven, a few questions leading up to the big game.
The Redskins finished 2015 on a high note. What acquisitions (via draft or free agency), not named Josh Norman, would you point to which would suggest the team is going to soar even higher in 2016?
The Redskins acquired three rookies this year who are all going to play a major role in taking the 'Skins to the next level. What's interesting is three were our first three draft picks and the fourth is an UDFA. WR Josh Doctson was our first-round pick and even though he'll be playing behind DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon to start his career, he's going to play a role in helping us this season. He's 6'2", has an outstanding catch radius and body control, and incredible leaping ability. He's been likened to A.J. Green. In the second round we drafted ILB/SS Su'a Cravens. Right now he's primarily playing ILB with Washington while learning SS on the side. He won't be one of our starting ILBs in our base defense, but he'll be out there at that new "moneybacker" spot (think Deone Bucannon) in most all of our nickel and dime packages. He's fluid, instinctive, and can cover. His primary objective from the start will be to cover TEs and RBs in the passing game with the occasional blitz sprinkled in. Our third-round pick was CB Kendall Fuller. Many believe he would have been a first or second-round pick had it not been for a knee injury (torn meniscus) that cut his final year at VT short. However, he's 100% healthy right now and enters the season as our #2 slot/nickel CB. The UDFA I was referencing is RB Robert Kelley out of Tulane. He's currently our #3 RB though our #2 (Chris Thompson) is exclusively a third-down back/return man. Both Thompson and our starter, Matt Jones, have some durability concerns, as well. HC Jay Gruden has already said that Robert Kelley will get plenty of play and has earned it after having an excellent preseason (198 rushing yards on 5.2 ypc and 1 TD as well as being perhaps the best pass protecting back).
The FA acquisitions who will make the most impact (outside of Josh Norman) are TE Vernon Davis, CB Greg Toler, S David Bruton, and, of course, Ziggy Hood. Davis is our #2 TE (behind Reed) and will get a ton of snaps in our offense. He's probably the best blocking TE we have and seems to not have lost hardly any athleticism or speed at all even though he's now 32. Obviously, the drops for him the past couple of seasons are a concern, but he's had a great off/preseason with us. Toler's had another standout preseason and brings veteran, starting experience to our CB group behind Norman and Breeland. Bruton is our starter at SS after being a STs standout in Denver for the entirety of his career (he's 29). You all know Ziggy, but he's been rejuvenated (as much as you can tell, anyway) this preseason. He was signed in the off-season almost as an afterthought on our defense and was expected to just come in as a vet and compete to maybe get a spot on the team. Well he's earned a starting role. He's been absolutely outstanding when he's been on the field. He's looked like our best DL (though Chris Baker barely played) this off-season. I should also mention that we added your old buddy Terence Garvin and he's been as advertised on STs for us. He'll make an impact there.
Kirk Cousins is playing under a one-year contract and is looking for big money. Are Washington fans sold on Cousins as "their guy" or are they taking more of a wait-and-see approach?
I'd say most fans are sold on Kirk at this point, though not all. Most are in agreement with our GM Scot McCloughan that moving forward as the team has is the best course of action, even if they'd be ecstatic signing Kirk long-term. Kirk gained a lot of believers the second-half of last season and it's hard not to be sold when he was arguably the best QB in the league over those last eight-or-so games. Still, that's only half of a season and it's probably not the best decision to invest a long-term, huge-money contract on a guy you've only see really prove himself for eight games. And why would you when you can go the route the Redskins have chosen? Kirk gets paid this year and the FO gets a year to really find out how good he is. Hell, if they're not sure after this season, they could franchise him again next year. But if for whatever reason he bombs this year, we'll all be very thankful the team is going about things in this way and if he's very successful, then we'll all feel even better about giving him that huge contract we could have given him this past off-season, anyway. The fan-base is very confident in Kirk right now, though.
Who would you say is the offensive key for the Redskins to be victorious Monday night?
LT Trent Williams. Trent's the key for the Redskins offense every game, not just Monday night. It's real simple, our run game basically doesn't exist without him and our offense is so highly predicated on the passing game and Kirk being able to use the impressive array of weapons we have at the skill positions that if Trent isn't there to keep him upright, we're in big trouble. He's arguably the best LT in the game and everything begins and ends with him on our offense. I'd rather lose Kirk and roll with Colt McCoy at QB than lose Trent at LT. He's that good/valuable. He's huge and athletic, and you'll see Monday night, we'll run the ball way more towards his side than to the right (and very likely be more successful on his side, too). And if Kirk doesn't have time, it doesn't matter how good Jordan Reed, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Vernon Davis, and Josh Doctson look on paper.
Who would be the defensive key to victory for Washington in Week 1?
In my opinion, that would be Josh Norman. Let's face it, there's a reason that the Norman-Brown match-up is the most talked about/highly anticipated match-up in this game... and it's not just because Antonio Brown is the best WR in the game. Norman was brought into Washington and given more money than any other CB ever this off-season. That's a lot of pressure. On top of that, he's gone out and sold himself as the best CB on Earth and now he has a match-up with the best WR on Earth. Nobody is selling the Steeler offense short, but it's obviously a little different without Le'Veon Bell. That makes Brown that much more important, and while he'll be matched-up against Bashaud Breeland and Dashaun Phillips as well, he'll spend most of his time facing off against Norman. It's the two best at what they do in the business in prime-time on national TV in the first game of the season. It's Norman's first game as a Redskin and the fans are going to make major judgements off of this one game. Nobody expects him to shut Brown down. We all know Brown's going to get his. We accept it. But if Norman can just contain/limit him somewhat and keep his YAC to a minimum, then he'll have done his job. If he can just stay with Brown for a split-second longer than most any other CB, then that could be the difference for the Redskins pass rush against Big Ben. And with as difficult as Ben is to corral and sack, the pass rush will need as many of those extra split-seconds as they can get.
What is your score prediction, and please elaborate.
I think the Redskins are going to win 27-24. I think both teams have excellent offenses though I think the Steelers group will be hurt a little bit by their suspensions and injuries. The Redskins offense enters this match-up at full strength, so there will be no excuses. I expect it'll be a very good, close game with plenty of yards gained by both teams. I'll be watching two areas in particular: DeAngelo Williams and the Redskins secondary. Williams was a beast last year. He's 33 years old. He has to drop off at some point. I'm not saying that'll be Monday night, but I'll be looking to see if I can see any drop-off at all. The Redskins run defense is suspect, so in order for the Steelers to win, I think they have to take advantage of that and Williams has to have a big night. With regards to the secondary, the Steelers offensive weapons are potent and the passing attack is crazy good with Ben. We already talked about that little bit of extra time the Redskin pass-rush will need, but I'll also be looking to see if any of these guys can come up with an INT. Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, DeAngelo Hall... Those guys are ball hawks known for getting turnovers. Turnovers changes games. If they can pick off Ben once or twice, that could be the difference. If not... it'll be real hard to beat you guys.