INDIANAPOLIS — While all eyes were focused on the Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks Friday night, it was again the guys standing five yards behind them who ran their way onto the highlight reels.
Just two games into the preseason, the Redskins’ running game has shown potential for vast improvement over a season ago. In Washington's 16-3 win over the Indianapolis Colts Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Redskins posted 215 rushing yards, more than they managed in any regular season game a year ago.
The Redskins received another strong performance from Tim Hightower, but also had a good outing from rookie Roy Helu, who ran for 101 yards on 14 carries. Both running backs worked with the first team and each posted a run of more than 50 yards.
Hightower's long run came on the second play of the game. Aided by strong blocking in front of him, he burst around the left side and streaked 58 yards downfield.
“My job was easy,” said Hightower, who finished the game with 70 yards on six carries. “I took off running and saw a hole open up that a truck could drive through.”
The run put the Redskins on the Colts 20-yard line, and four plays later, Hightower punched in a one-yard touchdown, the team's first score of the game and Hightower’s first in a Redskins jersey.
It wasn’t just Hightower who found success on the ground, though. The offensive line was in sync, comfortable with Coach Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme, and the Redskins’ backs found their holes. Both running backs were complimentary of the line's play.
“The only mistakes were not from them, but from me,” said Helu. “I think there are a lot of things I need to improve on.”
Helu made a strong case to be included on the 53-man roster. In addition to the 100-yard game, he had 23 yards on four catches out of the backfield. His biggest run came on the second play of the second quarter, when he took a handoff from John Beck and sprinted around the left side for a 51-yard gain.
“That’s one of the reasons why we drafted him,” said Shanahan. “We felt he had that big-time speed. You get a chance to see a back in game situations. You never really know [about their speed] until they play. I thought he showed us a lot tonight on some of the runs he did have.”
Still, Helu was disappointed he didn’t carry the run into the end zone.
“There's a part where endurance comes in,” said Helu, a fourth-round pick out of Nebraska. “That’s what I need to build, so that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
Playing primarily against the Colts’ first-team defense, the Redskins rolled up 160 rushing yards in the first half. The Colts managed just one rushing yard in the first two quarters. In two preseason games, the Washington starters have out-gained opponents on the ground by 212 yards to 57.
The running game, which ranked 30th in the league last season, averaging 91 yards per game, was a major point of emphasis in the offseason. The Redskins felt they beefed up their run-blocking by moving Will Montgomery to center and adding right guard Chris Chester via free agency.
But the biggest addition appears to be Hightower. “You really don't know how a team is going to come together,” he said. “To see how our team is coming together so early. . . it says a lot.”
Hightower has taken advantage of a heavy workload the past couple of weeks. Ryan Torain was the Redskins’ top returning running back, with 742 rushing yards last season, an average of 4.5 yards per carry.
But Torain suffered a broken bone in his left hand two weeks ago. Though he was cleared to play and returned to the practice field last week, Torain did not make the trip with his teammates to Indianapolis.
If Torain does see action in next week’s preseason game at Baltimore, he’ll need to do a lot to top the performances of Hightower and Helu. Simply put, what the two running backs did in two quarters Friday night — 146 of the team's 160 first-half rushing yards — was something the Redskins were incapable of a year ago.
The Redskins have played only 15 regular season games in the past five years, in fact, in which they managed that many yards over the course of four quarters. Last season, they topped 160 rushing yards in only two games. Their season-high was 188 yards, a mark the Redskins had nearly hit through three quarters Friday night.