by David Elfin

Unless the MRI of Kirk Cousins’ sprained right foot mirrors that of rookie safety Phillip Thomas from 10 days ago and the backup quarterback is out for the year with a Lisfranc fracture, memories of the Redskins’ 24-13 victory over Pittsburgh last night will quickly fade.

After all, it was a preseason game, the kind of contest that only matters for hopefuls trying to win jobs, players engaged in the few legitimate position battles, and injuries – those to receivers Leonard Hankerson and Aldrick Robinson aren’t supposed to be serious and nose tackle Barry Cofield can play with his fractured hand tightly taped.

In fact, even if Cousins is sidelined long-term, all indications are that Robert Griffin III’s surgically repaired right knee will be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener against Philadelphia. For all the focus on Cousins since Griffin went down in the playoff loss to Seattle more than seven months ago, the second-year man from Michigan State will only play in 2013 if last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year can’t.

Griffin was spectacular in his record-setting debut season. Washington’s offense, fifth-ranked last year, could be special this season if he, receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan and tight end Fred Davis are all healthy, which wasn’t the case in 2012.

However, it’s hard to see the Redskins taking the next step to true contender status unless the defense ratchets up its performance from the wretched unit that was 28th overall in 2012, 30th against the pass.

That’s why, despite the injuries, coach Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim Haslett had to be happy with last night’s game.

The Steelers ran the ball on their first five plays, managing just 11 yards. E.J. Biggers – who’s supposed to be the No. 3 cornerback but isn’t playing as well as rookie David Amerson or second-year man Richard Crawford – blew the tackle on a 12-yard run by Jonathan Dwyer. But Cofield and defensive end Kedric Golston teamed to sack Ben Roethlisberger on the next play before outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan picked off a screen for Dwyer and took the interception 22 yards for a 7-0 lead that the Redskins would never relinquish.

“I could kind of tell [what was coming] by the way the tackle was setting and then by the way the back had a wider path … coming out of the backfield,” explained Kerrigan, who also credited wily 38-year-old captain London Fletcher for telling him to watch for a screen.

The play was reminiscent of Kerrigan’s 18-yard interception for the game-winning touchdown against the New York Giants in his 2011 debut. Kerrigan also took a pick 28 yards to the house in a loss to Atlanta last year. Those three interceptions have come against two-time Super Bowl winners Roethlisberger and Eli Manning as well Matt Ryan, the only active quarterback not named Brady with a career winning percentage over .700. Kerrigan only steals from the best.

Midway through the second quarter, Kerrigan made another of his signature plays, swatting the ball out of the hand of Steelers backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. Cofield recovered at the Pittsburgh 16.

During his first two seasons, Kerrigan scored two of Washington’s five defensive touchdowns and was responsible for six of its 29 forced fumbles. Fellow Pro Bowl outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and cornerback Josh Wilson were next with four forced fumbles each.

“The boy just has a knack,” Golston said about Kerrigan’s penchant for causing turnovers. “That’s what he does.”

After getting strafed for untouched touchdown runs of 58 and 19 yards in its preseason opener at Tennessee, Washington’s defense generally tightened up last night. Following Kerrigan’s touchdown, the Steelers carried six more times in the first quarter for all of 13 yards. When the starters exited at halftime, the Redskins led 17-6. Pittsburgh had run 13 more plays than Washington but for just 43 more yards.

“We understand that we have to stop the run,” said Golston, who’ll likely open the season as a starter while Jarvis Jenkins serves a four-game suspension. “We came in here with that mindset. I think we did a good job. [But] obviously, it’s a majority passing league so you definitely have to get after the quarterback [too].”

It’s just preseason and neither the Steelers nor the Titans had winning records in 2012, but the Redskins’ starters have been getting after the quarterback with four sacks (two by Kerrigan, the one split by Cofield and Golston, and one by Orakpo, who sat out last night with a bruised quad) and four hurries in three quarters of work.

If that type of production continues Saturday against Buffalo – the starters will likely sit out next Thursday’s preseason finale at Tampa Bay – and the regulars, save Jenkins, are all good to go afterwards, then Shanahan and Haslett have to enter the season believing that their defense will not be nearly as big a drag on the offense as it was in 2012.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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