A week after they watched rookie Alfred Morris make a strong case for the starting running back job, second-year pros Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. did their best to revive their chances as the Washington Redskins thumped the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-3, Wednesday night.
Royster started and had a solid showing in limited action, rushing for 44 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries and making two catches for 15 yards in a first half that ended with Washington up 16-0.
But it was Helu who shined the most, coming off the bench to carry 15 times for 90 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two receptions for 34 yards.
The preseason finale against the visiting Buccaneers marked the first action in two weeks for Royster, and the first in three weeks for Helu. Both entered training camp expecting to compete for the starting job. But Royster missed the previous preseason game with a mild knee injury and Helu missed the past two with tendinitis in both Achilles’ tendons.
In their absence, Morris started and rushed for 107 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. The Redskins’ fourth running back, Tim Hightower, added 28 yards on five carries in his first return to the field since he tore an ACL on Oct. 23, 2011.
Wednesday represented the pair’s last chance to audition for roster spots and the starting job. Both Royster and Helu returned to action admittedly feeling pressure to perform.
“We have some solid backs on this team,” Royster said. “It’s definitely a good problem to have for a coach’s standpoint. But it’s tough on us. We just want to make this team as best we can.”
Royster, the 2005 All-Met Player of the Year at Westfield High in Chantilly, started a bit slowly. His first five carries totaled 15 yards.. On his sixth (which came at the start of Washington’s fourth possession of the game), he was stopped for a one-yard loss.
But two plays later, Royster ripped off a 13-yard run to the Tampa Bay 1-yard line. On the next play, he took a handoff and fought through initial contact before stretching out over the goal line for his first touchdown since the 2011 preseason.
Helu began rotating with Royster in the second quarter, their two rushing styles complementing each other. Helu picked up the bulk of his carries on runs to the outside, while Royster moved the ball between the tackles.
Helu’s night didn’t start on such a promising note, however. On his first snap, he took a pitch from quarterback Kirk Cousins, but fumbled the ball. It bounced off the turf and into Helu’s hands, but he dropped it again before accidentally kicking it out of bounds for a 12-yard loss.
Helu admitted feeling rusty, and said his fumble was the result of not focusing on the ball. Early on, he said, he could not accelerate as quickly as usual, but his confidence gradually grew.
“After that first pitch, when I got in the [next] series for run after run, that’s where I started feeling more in tune [with] where blocks would be,” Helu said. “ . . . It was good to get out there, just throwing my heart out there.”
Royster didn’t return in the second half after sustaining a stinger in his neck late in the first half, but said after the game that he felt fine. That meant more opportunities for Helu.
The Nebraska product, who led the Redskins in rushing as a rookie last season, gained 63 yards and scored both of his touchdowns after intermission to close out his preseason on a positive note.
Helu’s first touchdown came one play after Cousins connected with Brandon Banks on a 47-yard pass along the right sideline. Helu swept around the left end, raced toward the end zone and dove over a defender and the goal line.
He later ran off tackle and scored from six yards out to put the Redskins up 30-3.
After having little to show through three weeks, Helu suddenly finds himself on more solid footing with 107 yards on 18 carries in two preseason outings. Royster, with 85 yards on 19 preseason carries, has a respectable body of work as well.
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan now has nine days before the opener at New Orleans to decide on a starter.
“Whoever’s going to be out there [as the starter], we still have to compete each week,” Helu said.
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