The Washington Football team crafted one of its best comeback wins in years, led by a man who knows all about comebacks.
Quarterback Alex Smith, whose career appeared over two years ago because of his gruesome leg injury, helped rally Washington to a stunning 23-17 victory over the previously unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1).
Trailing 14-0 in the first half, and showing little to no life offensively, Washington stormed back in the second half.
Smith completed 31 of 46 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown. He was far from the lone hero, but his steady hand has helped a young team in need of guidance.
Meanwhile, Washington kept pace with the New York Giants in the NFC East. Both teams are now 5-7 with four games remaining after each pulled off an upset win on the road. Washington is 4-2 in its past six games, though three of those wins came vs. a wounded Dallas team and the Cincinnati Bengals.
But beating the Steelers, while rallying from a two-touchdown deficit, was the kind of win Washington needed to show the progress it's making under first-year coach Ron Rivera. The offense, missing running back Antonio Gibson, came to life thanks to tight end Logan Thomas, receiver Cam Sims and running back J.D. McKissic. All made big plays to spark the offense; Thomas caught nine passes for 98 yards and a touchdown.
There was also defensive end Montez Sweat. While there has been heavy attention given to rookie end Chase Young, it's Sweat's improvement that has helped fuel Washington's defensive improvement. Sweat, who returned an interception for a touchdown vs. Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, tipped three passes Monday -- including one that was intercepted by linebacker Jon Bostic at the two-minute warning. Sweat also dominated against the run.
Washington showed that it has resolve as well as a young talent base that has provided hope for a fan base in desperate need of any signs of life.
Washington's defense also had a goal-line stand in the first half, shutting down Pittsburgh on four tries inside the 1-yard line. Young made a nice stop, Sweat had a tipped pass and the defense gave Washington momentum.
Washington's defense held Pittsburgh to 21 yards rushing on 14 carries.
After a rough summer because of so much controversy surrounding the franchise, Washington has become a feel-good story during the season. Whether it ends up winning the division becomes somewhat irrelevant. For the first time in a while, Washington is headed in the right direction.
Rivera stayed on the field to congratulate his players as they headed to the locker room, something he said he never does. But he said he wanted to do so because they “earned it.”
“This is up there,” he said of where the win ranks for him. “In spite of some decisions I made today. They played their asses off. This really does rank up there because of who we beat. That’s one of the storied franchises. To come in and win, that was big for our guys.”
“We’re on a roll,” Sweat said.
QB breakdown: We've moved past the Smith-is-a-great-story portion of the season and now must just look at who he is: a tough, smart veteran who can slog through a game and still help a team stay in it. He took two bad sacks at the end of the first half, but he also stays calm, and on a night like this, that was huge. On his touchdown pass to Thomas, Smith stood in against a strong pass rush and waited until his target was open before unloading the ball. Smith remains a limited quarterback and there's a lot he can't do anymore. But there are still a lot of ways he can help. It's never been about the numbers for him, but rather the impact on those around him.
Pivotal play: There were quite a few, but let's go to Washington's first possession of the third quarter. On third-and-14, Smith hit Cam Sims on a tunnel screen hoping to get a few yards and improve the team's punt position. But Sims turned it into a 31-yard gain -- he also had a 30-yard catch and run in the first half to set up a field goal. Sims also had a one-handed 29-yard grab on third down to set up the winning field goal. But if he doesn't make that play on third down early in the second half, Washington is punting from its own end zone down by 11 points.
Promising trend: Thomas has proved to be one of Washington's best offseason signings in years. Come to think of it, running back J.D. McKissic falls into that category as well. But Thomas has provided Washington a big target for the quarterbacks. This summer, Thomas looked good in training camp, especially in the red zone. But he had never been more than a complementary player after switching to tight end earlier in his career. However, he has been a durable and consistent target and has improved as a blocker in the run game. Whether or not he's a legitimate No. 1 tight end is debatable. But he's without a doubt a quality player who has helped his new team quite a bit.