Since the day he first set foot at Redskins Park, Coach Mike Shanahan has stressed the team's commitment to the running game. On Sunday, the Washington Redskins finally put together some game film that backs up what had mostly sounded like an idle threat.
“Our mentality from game to game is to get off to a good start with the running game,” said guard Kory Lichtensteiger. “It’s nice when it actually works right off the bat.”
In the Redskins’ 22-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Washington’s running backs tallied 177 yards on the ground, led by Tim Hightower's 96-yard performance. But just as important, the Redskins had a strong complement in rookie Roy Helu, who added 74 yards on the ground and another 38 receiving.
Hightower’s strong outing came against his former team. The Cardinals traded the fourth-year running back to Washington in July.
“I tried to tell myself all week that this was just another game,” Hightower said, “but it’s not. . . . I wanted this one really bad.”
Hightower's strong start, which included runs of 20 and 17 yards in the second quarter, set an early pace for the Redskins’ offense. For all the talk of relying on the running game last season, the team’s 43 carries Sunday were the most by a Redskins squad in nearly three years. Last year, in Shanahan’s first season, the largest number of carries the Redskins had was 35, and they topped 28 only twice. That team hit the 100-yard mark seven times but only once compiled as many yards as Hightower and Helu managed Sunday against the Cardinals.
The performance also showed that, unlike the Redskins’ season-opening win over the New York Giants, this team might not need to lean on the passing game to move the ball. In Week 1, the Redskins had 74 yards on 26 carries. Hightower said his offensive line has opened holes both weeks thus far.
“I told them last week I was kind of disappointed that I didn’t have a better day for them,” Hightower said. “When they work that hard, they look forward to their back having a productive day.”
Entering Sunday’s game, the Redskins didn’t have any particular plan to divvy up snaps between Hightower and Helu. One week earlier, Hightower had 25 carries and Helu just one. Against the Cardinals, though, Washington coaches saw more of an opportunity to use a second runner.
“It kind of develops that way,” Shanahan said. “You can see on the sideline when somebody gets tired or loses his zip. I thought Tim did an excellent job, but I think he was a little tired from the emotion of a game like that and as much as we used him in the first half.”
Hightower had only five carries in the second half, while Helu accumulated 42 of his 74 yards in the final two quarters. Spending most of the first half on the sidelines, Helu, a shifty and quick runner, studied the Cardinals’ defense and coaches knew exactly how he could help.
“I just wanted to stretch the defense,” Helu said. “I was seeing through Tim running and some pictures that [the Cardinals] were sitting inside and possibly we could stretch them and cut them underneath to have more opportunity.”
While the Redskins consider Hightower an every-down running back, Helu showed Sunday that he can be not just a change-of-pace runner but he can relieve Hightower for a while.
“If somebody has a hot hand, you go with him,” Hightower said. “I was doing well, I had some good runs in the first half and they stuck with me. He played well in the second half and they stuck with him. As much of a competitor as I am — I said last week I don’t like coming off the field — at the end of the day, I like to win.”
The team’s zone-blocking scheme is designed for strong one-cut runners. The Redskins traded away a conditional draft pick and veteran defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday to the Cardinals on July 31 because they felt Hightower was perfect for their system. They acquired Helu in the fourth round of the draft because they liked his speed and saw a lot of potential. For at least one afternoon, both acquisitions were quickly validated.
“You remember games like this,” Hightower said.
The task now will be to show whether they can replicate games like this as well.