Roy Helu is finishing, but still not starting


Roy Helu has led the Redskins in rushing in each of the past three games. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
November 21, 2011

Mired in a six-game losing streak, the Washington Redskins have at least temporarily distanced themselves from the quarterback controversy that hastened the team’s slide. There are still plenty of depth chart questions, however, perhaps none bigger than the one at the starting running back position.

Ryan Torain, the Redskins’ starter Sunday, is actually the team’s third-leading rusher in the past six games. The team’s top runner over that stretch is Roy Helu, but Coach Mike Shanahan seems reluctant to rush the rookie into a starring role.

“I like Helu. He’s doing some great things,” Shanahan said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on him too early. He’s not ready for that. But he’s gaining experience, and I like what I see.”

Torain has started the Redskins’ past two games and three of the four since Tim Hightower went down with a season-ending knee injury. Torain’s rushing numbers from those four games: 40 yards on 24 carries. In Sunday’s loss to the Cowboys, Torain had only four yards on five carries and spent most of the second half on the sideline. Torain has totaled 71 yards in the past six games, considerably less than Helu’s 122.

Despite splitting carries and playing largely on passing downs, Helu has led the Redskins in rushing in each of the past three games. On Sunday, he had 35 yards on eight carries. He ran for 41 yards each of the previous two weeks.

Helu said Monday that coaches haven’t given him any hint about whether he might join the starting lineup soon.

“That’s something we keep in-house,” he said. “We talk amongst each other. The obvious thing is throughout the practice week, coach selects who he thinks is going to be the best person to win the game and start the game.”

While apparently that has been Torain the past couple of weeks, coaches haven’t been reluctant to turn to Helu as each game progresses. He’s the better blocker and better pass-catcher. He also may be the better runner.

Among NFL running backs with at least 50 carries this season, only seven are averaging more than Helu’s 4.9 yards per carry. Helu’s average is ahead some of the game’s top runners — Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson, Frank Gore, Arian Foster, among them — though they are every-down backs. Maurice Jones-Drew, for example has four times the number of carries of Helu.

The Redskins’ struggles in the running game are hardly a secret. Only two running backs have rushed for touchdowns this year, fewer than on 30 other teams. Since Hightower tore his anterior cruciate ligament Oct. 23 at Carolina, coaches have regularly rotated the running backs. In Sunday’s overtime loss to Dallas, Torain started the game, but Helu and Tashard Choice also saw plenty of action. Shanahan says taking a look at each running back helps coaches determine who should receive the bulk of the carries down the stretch.

“When you start to get a feel on who steps up, then you give somebody a little bit more reps,” Shanahan said. “And that’s what we’ve done with Helu. He’s got more reps than the rest of the backs. If he keeps on proving that he’s the guy, then he’s going to get more and more.”

Though Helu had only eight carries on Sunday, he was on the field for 38 of the Redskins’ 62 offensive snaps. As the Redskins were trying to tie the game late in the fourth, Helu was the main option in the backfield. They again turned to him in the overtime period.

“I guess the biggest thing I’ve been learning is it’s better to finish the game than to start it,” Helu said.

Shanahan won’t tip his hand about which running back might start this Sunday when the Redskins travel to Seattle. But each of the past two weeks, coaches have replaced a veteran in the lineup with a younger player. Linebacker Perry Rileyreceived his first career start two weeks ago at Miami, and rookie safety DeJon Gomesmade his first career start against Dallas.

While Shanahan doesn’t want to rush Helu along, he also knows he can’t wait forever for Torain to show he deserves such a prominent role. Since rushing for 135 yards at St. Louis on Oct. 2, Torain is averaging a dismal 1.6 yards per carry.

“The way he played against the Rams, he was off the charts,” Shanahan said. “You’re looking for that to come back. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

“That’s part of the evaluation process, especially when we’re struggling in the running game,’ he continued. “To find that spark — who’s going to be that guy who possesses that spark to help us a little bit?”

Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post.
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