The Redskins drafted Campbell in the first round of the 2005 draft and made him their starter in the second half of the 2006 season. And he played pretty well. Campbell threw six interceptions in seven games, and last season threw 11 interceptions in 13 games.
This season, through eight games, Campbell hasn't thrown an interception. He's fifth in the NFL with a passer rating of 100.5. His new coach, Jim Zorn, is a former quarterback and has added some necessary polish. Many of the of the Steelers point out the poise they see on tape to explain Campbell's rise.
"He's one of those guys with an old spirit," said Ryan Clark, a former teammate of Campbell's.
Troy Polamalu offered an explanation for not only Campbell's transformation, but for that of the entire Redskins offense:
"They're winning football games the way we – the way we were supposed to – win football games," Polamalu said. "They're running the ball and playing great defense. That's Steelers football right there. They've kind of taken the mold of what we like to do to win and done a good job."
It was another brutally honest comment from Polamalu. The Steelers have certainly changed their identity, while the Redskins are running the ball, using up clock, not making mistakes, and leaving the rest to their defense and special teams. The Redskins are 2nd in the NFL in rushing, 5th in time of possession, and 3rd in fewest turnovers. The Steelers on the other hand have seemingly become the proprietors of will-of-the-wisp offensive football. They're 18th in rushing, 20th in time of possession, and 15th in turnovers.
This theft of identity partially explains why the 6-2 Redskins are favored tonight against the 5-2 Steelers, who've struggled against NFC East opponents.
In games against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, the Steelers lost the time of possession (66:58 to 53:02), rushing (148-128) and turnover (7-3) battles, and of course they lost both games. Chris Hoke, the studious defensive tackle for the Steelers, was asked for his opinion on this alleged theft by the Redskins.
"They are playing physical football," said Hoke. "But they're not as much a smashmouth football team, though. They use more zone blocking. They're like the old Denver Broncos. They're just turning and running and trying to get you behind the block; just like what Clinton Portis used to do at Denver: run a bit and cut it up the field."
Now with the Redskins, Portis is the runaway NFL rushing leader. His 944 yards led runner-up Adrian Peterson by 260 yards going into Sunday's game. Portis has five straight 120-yard games, and another would tie Earl Campbell and Eric Dickerson for the NFL record. Portis is dealing with what the Redskins call "a lingering ankle issue," and he expects to play with pain.
When Campbell isn't handing off to Portis, he's throwing to wide receivers Santana Moss (42-658-5) and Antwaan Randle El (33-409-1) and tight end Chris Cooley (40-451-1). Placekicker Shaun Suisham is 15 for 18 under 50 yards, 16 for 21 overall.
While Pittsburgh's offense has deteriorated into an unidentifiable mishmash, its defense remains physical, fast and top-ranked. All the unit's starters but cornerback Bryant McFadden and free safety Ryan Clark are expected to play tonight.
The Redskins don't possess quite the pass-rush capability as their NFC East brethren. They have only 10 sacks, but their defense is stout enough and it's helped by an offense whose identity is summarized in the statistics of 284-pound fullback Mike Sellers. After touching the ball 73 times the last two seasons under Joe Gibbs, Sellers has touched the ball only three times this season under Zorn.
"He's the lead blocker," Zorn said. "It's the nature of what we're doing right now."