The Pittsburgh Steelers are undefeated no more. Mike Tomlin's club was handed its first loss of the season courtesy of the Washington Football Team, who pulled off the stunning 23-17 win. This upset really developed in the second half where Washington was able to dig out of an 11-point deficit they created in the first. Alex Smith knotted the game at 17 with 9:09 to play in the fourth quarter on an eight-play drive that resulted in a 15-yard touchdown reception for Logan Thomas.
After that score, Pittsburgh drove within field goal range but elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Washington 28-yard line and Ron Rivera's defense was able to break up a pass intended for running back Anthony McFarland that turned the ball over on downs. From there, Dustin Hopkins was eventually able to kick the 45-yard field goal to give Washington its first lead of the game with just over two minutes remaining in the contest. While that was theoretically enough time for Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense to drive down the field and at least tie the ballgame, the veteran quarterback's first pass of the ensuing drive was tipped by Montez Sweat and intercepted by Jon Bostic, a turnover that all but clinched the game for Washington, which moves to 5-7 on the year.
Alex Smith finished his night with 296 yards passing and a touchdown. Meanwhile, J.D. McKissic picked up the load in Washington's backfield following Antonio Gibson's toe injury, catching all 10 of his targets for 70 yards. Peyton Barber also had a rushing score. As for Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger threw for 305 yards on 53 pass attempts and notched two touchdowns along with that pick in the loss.
With the win, Washington remains tied with the Giants (who swept their season series with Washington) in the NFC East division race. And while they were unable to clinch a playoff berth on Monday night, the Steelers, based on their perfect record against conference opponents, remain ahead of the Chiefs for the race to obtain the AFC's No. 1 seed.
Here's a closer look at how the Football Team managed to give the Steelers their first loss of 2020.
Why Washington won
Washington made significantly more adjustments coming out of the half. They started the second half with a 14-play, 82-yard drive that ended with Peyton Barber's 1-yard touchdown run, as the Football Team cut their deficit to 14-10. Washington, who went 0-8 on third down in the first half, picked up their first third down conversion when Smith hit Cam Sims for 31-yards on a third-and-14 play that helped set up Barber's touchdown. With Gibson out and Terry McLaurin the focus of Pittsburgh's defense, Washington emphasized getting the ball to Thomas, McKissic and Sims, who combined to catch 24 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. Smith's quick passes/decisions offset Pittsburgh's pass rush, as Smith was not sacked in the second half after being taken down three times during the first half.
The Football Team's defense, which entered Week 13 tops in the NFL in red zone efficiency and second against the pass, came up with two critical red zone stops while holding the Steelers to just 1 of 3 in the red zone. Washington received big defensive performances from linebacker Bostic (10 tackles, one interception), Sweat (three passes defensed) and rookie Chase Young, who completed Washington's first red zone stop with his fourth-down tackle of Benny Snell during the first half.
Why the Steelers lost
Pittsburgh's receivers, a week after dropping seven passes against the Ravens, dropped at least as many passes on Monday night. The two biggest culprits on Monday were tight end Eric Ebron and receiver Diontae Johnson. The Steelers' running game, ranked 26th in the NFL entering Week 13, gained just 21 yards on 14 carries against Washington. It's safe to say that the Steelers will happily welcome back center Maurkice Pouncey and running back James Conner, who missed their second consecutive games.
While the majority of the blame should fall on the offense, the Steelers' defense does deserve some criticism after failing to come up with the necessary stops late in the game. They never found an answer for Thomas (nine catches, 98 yards and a touchdown) and McKissic (10 catches, 70) yards, who stepped up big after Gibson left the game in the first quarter.
Pittsburgh, in defeat, received solid contributions from receiver James Washington, safety Mike Hilton and linebacker T.J. Watt. Washington extended the Steelers' lead to 14-0 after catching a 50-yard touchdown pass. Hilton made several big plays that included his fourth-down tackle of McKissic in the first half. Watt had six tackles while recording his league-high 12th sack of the season.
After Washington tied the game, the Steelers decided to eschew a field goal try on fourth-and-1 from Washington's 28-yard line. Roethlisberger tried to complete an intermediate pass to McFarland, who was unable to come down with the catch. McFarland was covered on the play by Bostic, a former Steeler who was released by Pittsburgh after the 2018 season. Bostic then came down with the game-winning pick on Washington's ensuing defensive possession.
Play of the game
Five plays after their fourth down stop, Washington faced a third-and-four at their own 44-yard line. Smith managed to find Sims, whose one-handed catch resulted in a 29-yard gain. The catch set up Hopkins' game-winning field goal.
"It's up there. In spite of some of the decisions I made tonight, they played their [expletive] off. This one ranks up there. We beat them in Pittsburgh. The Steelers, they're one of the more storied franchises. To come in here and beat those guys, that's pretty big for our guys." -- Washington coach Ron Rivera, who made it to a Super Bowl as the Panthers' head coach, was asked where this win ranks for him in his coaching career. The win was Washington's first against Pittsburgh since 1991, the last time they won the Super Bowl.
"We've just got to make routine plays routinely, and we're not making them enough right now. And it's effecting the fluidity in our collective group." -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on his team's ongoing mistakes, specifically the continued drops from his receivers. Pittsburgh has scored less than 20 points in each of its last two games after scoring at least 24 points in their first 10 games.
Washington will head west to face the 49ers, who fell to 5-7 after losing to the Bills on Monday night. Speaking of the Bills, the Steelers will head to Buffalo next Sunday. The Bills, who improved to 9-3 after defeating the 49ers, beat the Steelers on their turf in Week 15 of the 2019 season, the first of three straight losses for Pittsburgh.