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Another Roadblock

Redskins' Offense Is Wrapped Up Again In Loss to the Steelers

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page D01

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 28 -- Week after week nothing really changes for the Washington Redskins. The offense is unable to move the ball through the air or on the ground, the injury-riddled defense keeps the team in the games on pure effort and the Redskins are unable to overcome even the most modest deficit.

There was little deviation from that script Sunday at Heinz Field, with Washington (3-8) reaching new lows offensively in dropping its third straight game, 16-7. The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) were in control almost from the outset, winning nine in a row for the first time since 1976, while the Redskins mustered only one drive of note and have scored only two touchdowns on offense in the last three games. They have scored 13 points in two weeks, matching the lowest two-game production in Hall of Fame Coach Joe Gibbs's career, and are the only team in the league that has yet to score 20 points in a game.

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis finds room to run, making his way between Redskins Ryan Clark, Antonio Pierce (58) and Fred Smoot (21). Bettis averaged 3.2 yards per carry; the Redskins 2.9 yards per play. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

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Washington, the NFL's lowest-scoring team, gained 156 net yards on 54 plays -- a 2.9 average -- and rushed for a total of 51 yards against the league's top defense. Running back Clinton Portis, who was acquired from Denver for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey in the offseason and signed to an eight-year, $50.5 million contract, carried just six times for 17 yards, with Gibbs giving more work to backup Ladell Betts. Quarterback Patrick Ramsey, in his second start after replacing Mark Brunell, completed 19 of 34 passes for 138 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"It's the same old story," Ramsey said. "I'm almost tired of telling you guys the same thing about us being inconsistent. . . . We've just got to put a full game together. One of our goals is to score 21 points [in a game] and we've got to do that."

The Redskins never threatened that total Sunday. Nearly half of the team's offensive yardage came on a single drive, when Washington marched 79 yards to cut Pittsburgh's lead to 13-7 late in the third quarter. Betts was featured prominently in that possession, taking the ball on third and one from the 42 and storming 26 yards into Steelers territory for the longest rush by the Redskins since Portis took the first carry of the season 64 yards for a touchdown.

Washington again bogged down at the goal line, however, a season-long phenomenon for a team that has rushed for only two touchdowns in 11 games. On that drive, Betts was stuffed on two attempts from the 1, losing a yard on his second try. Ramsey then threw an incomplete pass before finding rookie H-back Chris Cooley in the end zone on fourth down for Washington's first touchdown in more than 104 minutes of play. Portis, meantime, the NFL leader in rushes coming into this game, was wrapped up in a parka on the sidelines and sitting on a heated bench, venturing to the field only during a timeout to pat Betts on the back before heading back to the fringes.

"There was no particular design," Gibbs said of the decision to bench Portis for much of the game. "We were just trying to move the ball as best we could and we wound up throwing a lot today. . . . He wound up not getting too many carries and I'm sure he'll be upset about it, and I would expect him to be."

Said Portis, who has run 17 times or less in each of Washington's last four losses: "I'm not upset about the carries. I'm upset we didn't win. Week in and week out we've been having opportunities and we're just not taking advantage of them. . . . For me to be standing on the sidelines, it's a shock to me, too, but I think Ladell went out in this situation and played great."

If not for a couple of desperation tackles on punt returns by Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El, who single-handedly swayed the field position battle in the Steelers' favor, the game would not have been close. Randle El, who played quarterback at Indiana University, returned Tom Tupa's second punt of the game 60 yards, dancing around the middle of the field before exploding through a huge gap down the left sideline. "I think we had a couple of knockout blocks on that one," said Randle El, who had 111 return yards. Only the hustle of linebacker Marcus Washington, who had eight tackles and two sacks, prevented a touchdown; instead, the Steelers settled for the ball at the 17, setting up Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal.

"Randle El is phenomenal," Gibbs said. "We knew that coming in. The guy is terrific on film and we tried to sell our guys on it and we just weren't good enough to get him down. He is a heck of a football player and he put us in a hole."

Randle El's next punt return went for 43 yards -- Tupa's kick had carried only 38 -- down the opposite sideline, with the punter knocking him out of bounds at the 39. "That's the most elusive guy I've seen all year," special teams player Mike Sellers said. "I know I had a couple of shots at him and missed."

Six plays later the Steelers were in the end zone, with Jerome Bettis, who finished the game with 31 carries for 100 yards, plunging in from four yards for his 11th rushing touchdown of the season. Pittsburgh led 10-0 without having to move the ball 40 yards.

Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a pedestrian game -- 9 of 20 for 131 yards -- and was without standout runner Duce Staley and wide receiver Plaxico Burress while facing an abrasive pass rush, yet his team was in no real danger of losing. "They came at us with all kinds of things," Roethlisberger said. "There were times when there was only three down linemen and eight DBs [defensive backs]. That's something we have not seen a whole lot of."

Washington's second-ranked defense held the Steelers to 207 net yards despite having to call more unheralded depth players in for injured stalwarts -- rookie defensive linemen Ryan Boschetti and linebacker Chris Clemons both fared well in their NFL debuts -- but given the struggles of the offense, the unit is aiming for a higher standard.

"You have to score on defense," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "We need to cause turnovers and be a scoring defense, especially when it's this close. Some way or another we've got come up with that big play."

The offense, lacking stalwart linemen Jon Jansen and Randy Thomas, never came close to a big play. The Redskins have gone seven games without a completion registering even 30 yards and faltered in the fourth quarter when trailing 16-7. They began a drive at midfield with about seven minutes to play and converted on fourth and two before Ramsey was forced to avoid mounting pressure, then flung an ill-advised pass in the general direction of wide receiver Laveranues Coles that was easily intercepted by cornerback Deshea Townsend.

"I felt like we had a play over there," Ramsey said. "I was just trying to make something happen."

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