LANDOVER, Md. -- Last night's third Steelers foray into the foreboding NFC East went pretty much as indicated, meaning it was simply going to be a matter of what level of offensive ineptitude would be necessary to waste another positively sterling performance by football's best defense.
By the time Ben Roethlisberger went to the sideline with a recurrence of his shoulder issue and was joined there by tight end Heath Miller and his newly yelping ankle, it wasn't even clear whether the Steelers' "attack" was better with or without them.
For the moment, try without.
At halftime, the team that went 1 for 10 on third down just eight days ago, had rallied to improve those figures to 3-for-their-last-19.
That was the very kind of squeamishness that figured to ignite a storm of trouble against the Washington Redskins, who were not only averaging 364 yards of offense per game, but also were one of only four teams in the league to be ranked among the top 10 in both offense and defense. Every one of those teams was in the NFC East, against which the Steelers had appeared by all evidence overmatched.
They'd scored all of six points in Philadelphia, where Roethlisberger had been thrown to the ground eight times, and lost handily. They managed 14 against the New York Giants at home, with Roethlisberger getting sacked five more times, and lost in the final minutes.
Still Mike Tomlin tried to get the ball into Ben's hands as soon as physically possible for this Washington summit, even to the extent that the Steelers would open the show with an onside kick that bounced easily into the clutches of Redskins special-teamer Alfred Fincher, putting the Steelers on the defensive instantly.
Which was the good news.
On defense, the Steelers ruled the night.
"That [onside kick] call is on me, but ours is a defense that allows you to be aggressive," Tomlin said after the Steelers hit the halfway point 6-2. "I just wanted to let [Washington] know that we were comin' and that we were comin' to win."
Punctured for field goals on Washington's first two possessions, Dick LeBeau's top-rated defense left no misunderstanding as to why that was. Clinton Portis had to settle for 51 yards on 13 carries. The Redskins, who had but 66 yards a half, finished 143 yards short of their average.
From the moment Ike Taylor slammed into Portis on third-and-2 on Washington's first possession, dropping him short of the sticks, the Redskins operated with a skittishness most other defenses have not imposed on them.
Portis came into this prime-time appointment with five consecutive 100-yard performances on his dossier, some of which had come against the very defenses that make Washington's division what it is -- 121 yards against Dallas, 145 against Philadelphia. Of course, those defenses aren't this defense, the Steelers' version that hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher this season, the Steelers' version that has allowed only three such occurrences in the previous 74 games.
"The main thing was that they had a great running game, but we stop the run," said emergency safety Tyrone Carter. "Every time we step on the field, we feel we're the best. This defense is very tight; we have great camaraderie, brotherhood. We just have to bring our 'A' game every night."
Despite cracking a stretch play for 22 yards to become the first runner this season with a 20-yard gain against the Steelers, Portis' primary contribution last night was inadvertently negative -- he tipped Jason Campbell's swing pass into the left flat into the mitts of Steelers corner Deshea Townsend, snapping Campbell's incredible string of 271 consecutive passes without an interception. The Redskins, in fact, had not seen a pass picked off in 12 games dating to 2007, a record streak of throws totaling 379.
"You've got to give their defense credit," Campbell said after a two-pick night. "They put a lot of pressure on us in a lot of different ways. Pittsburgh gave us a lot of different looks, something out of the ordinary."
Campbell was coming off a 23-for-28 performance against the Lions that netted 328 yards and boosted him into the NFL's top five rated passers.
But again, this wasn't the Lions.
If any stats were going to be padded on this night, they'd be by James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and the rest of the Steelers' pass rush. James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Nick Eason joined that party. The Steelers had six sacks by the middle of the final period, two more than any Washington opponent this season. Lawrence Timmons added a seventh in the final minutes. To the extent that any of those were coverage sacks, credit was due to an exceedingly active secondary working without starting safety Ryan Clark. Carter started in his place, but Anthony Smith saw his first significant playing time of the season in that spot as well.
"I feel like we've got an opportunity to be pretty good," said Captain Farrior, whose total performance was just flat brilliant. "None of that stuff about being the top-rated defense really matters if you don't get a win. That's always what we're playing for, to get a win."
When the Redskins finally assembled the threat of a touchdown, midway through the fourth quarter, it was Farrior who lunged in front of Campbell's roll out pass to eligible tackle Lorenzo Alexander, slapping it away in the back of the end zone to preserve the 23-6 lead that had been erected principally under the direction of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, the new mayor of Pittsburgh.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com .