The Pittsburgh Steelers have looked like one of the league’s elite teams against the AFC, winning all five games versus conference opponents to claim the top spot in the AFC North.
Their two games against NFC East teams have been a much different story.
Pittsburgh will hope for a better result in its third showdown with a member of the NFL’s best division Monday night, as it travels to the nation’s capital for the first time in 20 years to take on the Washington Redskins.
The Steelers (5-2) came into the season with the toughest schedule in the league based on 2007 winning percentages, one that featured just two teams that had losing records last year. Pittsburgh has navigated the AFC portion of its schedule with relative ease thus far, outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per game while going 5-0.
However, four of the toughest potential matchups on the Steelers’ schedule were games against the NFC East, a division that boasted three playoff teams a season ago and no one with a losing record.
After their first two interconference matchups, Pittsburgh’s weaknesses have been magnified. Working behind an offensive line that lost All-Pro guard Alan Faneca in free agency, Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 23 times - third-most in the NFL - with a majority of those coming against NFC East opponents.
Roethlisberger was dropped eight times in a 15-6 loss at Philadelphia on Sept. 21, then got sacked five times and threw four interceptions in a 21-14 loss to the New York Giants last Sunday.
“The whole NFC East is (similar to the Eagles and Giants),” Roethlisberger said. “They’re throwing a lot of blitzes at you. They’re all big guys who can move around and throw different looks at you and try to confuse you. We’ve seen it twice so far and we’ll see it again this week.”
While the Giants (26) and Eagles (23) topped the NFC in sacks heading into Week 9, the Redskins (6-2) have only 10 sacks in eight games, including four in their past six contests.
Despite that statistic and with Washington having forced just eight turnovers - tied for 26th in the league - the Redskins have the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense, allowing 278.1 yards per game.
Part of that defensive success can be attributed to an offense that controls the clock. Washington is fourth in the league in time of possession (32:31) thanks to efficient quarterback Jason Campbell and Clinton Portis, the NFL rushing leader.
Campbell often hurt the Redskins as much as he helped them last season, throwing 12 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while compiling a 77.6 passer rating that was 20th in the league. This season, Campbell has thrown eight touchdowns without an interception, and his rating of 100.5 is fifth in the NFL.
He went 23-of-28 for a season-high 328 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown to Santana Moss, in Washington’s 25-17 win in Detroit on Sunday.
“He is a very talented guy physically,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who coached Campbell at the Senior Bowl prior to the 2005 draft. “He can escape the pressure, he has an extremely strong arm and he is a smart guy.
“He’s making great decisions, moving the offense, and his team is winning.”
Portis, meanwhile, has arguably been the league’s MVP in the first half the season. The seventh-year back’s total of 944 rushing yards is 260 more than his closest competitor, Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, and Portis has gained at least 120 yards in each of his past five games.
“All of the personal stats and (big numbers), wanting to do this and wanting to do that - all of that is out for me,” Portis told the Redskins’ official Web site. “I want to win. If we come out with a win, then I come out with a smile on my face.”
Portis may find running against the Steelers a bit more difficult. St. Louis, Cleveland and Detroit, Washington’s last three opponents, rank 24th or worse in the league in rushing yards allowed. Pittsburgh is third at 71.6 yards per game.
Portis has 21 carries for 64 yards in two career games against the Steelers, both while with Denver.
The Steelers are hoping their feature back, Willie Parker, can return from a knee injury that has kept him out of the past four games. Tomlin said Parker will test the knee this week before a decision is made on his status.
One offensive star who will return is Santonio Holmes, the receiver suspended by the Steelers for last Sunday’s game after being charged with possession of a small amount of marijuana during a traffic stop last week.
“As a football team and an organization, in terms of our view of the situation, we’ve laid it to bed,” Tomlin said. “We’re moving forward.”
The Steelers have won their last three meetings with the Redskins, all in Pittsburgh. The teams last played in Washington in 1988, their only meeting in the nation’s capital since 1968.