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First Drive Is a Blast from the Past

Redskins Finally Master Gibbs's Offensive Strategy on 93-Yard Touchdown Drive

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page D15

For 7 minutes 15 seconds yesterday, the Washington Redskins moved the football at will. They powered ahead for chunks of yards on the ground and completed precise passes. Everything that Coach Joe Gibbs desires from his offense was on display in the opening drive; after 11 games of offensive ineptitude, the Redskins were the Redskins as Gibbs envisions them.

Washington eased to a 31-7 victory over the New York Giants at FedEx Field, establishing a dominance on the initial drive -- a season-best 93-yard surge for a touchdown -- and erupting for the first truly notable offensive production of Gibbs's second tenure here. The Redskins (4-8) set a season high for points in the first half alone, running back Clinton Portis (31 rushes for 148 yards and a touchdown) and quarterback Patrick Ramsey (19 of 22 for 174 yards and three touchdowns) were both in peak form and the entire offense played with a swagger and confidence rarely seen this season.

Ryan Clark, bottom, and Antonio Pierce stop Giants running back Tiki Barber, who was held to 38 yards on 15 carries. (Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)

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And it all stemmed from the opening possession, a perfectly scripted 13-play tour de force, nine runs and four passes capped by Portis's one-yard dive into the end zone for the club's first rushing touchdown since Week 4 (Oct. 3). It was also the first time the team had scored a first-quarter touchdown since Week 2, and it allowed the Redskins to dictate the tempo of the game and stick to their run-heavy plan.

"Most teams just want to come up with a field goal out of that situation," said Portis, who topped 1,000 yards for the season yesterday. "We came away with seven points. Right then and there we knew we had a battle, and it was time to have fun. And we did."

Portis was coming off his two poorest games of the season, during which Washington amassed just 13 points, and reemerged as the focal point of the game plan. He carried the ball on Washington's first five plays after rushing just six times a week ago, gaining 35 yards. That was more than twice the amount he totaled the entire game last week in Pittsburgh.

Gibbs called five straight runs for Portis during one possession only once prior to this season, in the Redskins' last victory at Detroit a month ago, when Portis gained 147 yards. The message was clear: The Redskins had to resurrect their run-first ethos.

"What we need to do is run the ball, and run the ball well," Gibbs said, "and then take our shots [downfield]. We've been saying it all year; it's one thing to say it and it's another to do it."

The Redskins have had difficulty running inside, trying to adjust their physical style to Portis, who is not a hefty back (5-foot-11, 205 pounds). But they attacked the heart of New York's defense yesterday, unleashing the tailback with a series of cutback blocks that created openings in the middle of the field. "The key is to get Clinton to linebacker depth," right tackle Ray Brown said. "Where he can run away from linebackers, and in the secondary he can run over those guys." The scheme was almost identical to what Portis ran behind in Denver, where he twice surpassed 1,500 yards rushing, and he was again a dervish leaving tacklers lunging in vein.

"We put the plays in that he likes to run," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "We call it our stretch play and he did a great job with it. We told them all week that we were going to run the football. Clinton Portis had fresh legs after carrying the football six times the week before."

The first drive began at the 7-yard line, where the Redskins sent wide receiver Laveranues Coles in motion as a distraction and then handed off to Portis, who cut inside for nine yards. Portis started right then dashed to his left on the next play, picking up five more yards. Gibbs sent three receivers out for the next play, giving the Giants every indication that a pass was forthcoming, and the entire offensive line surged to the right while Portis darted into a gaping hole to the left for six more yards. Right guard Randy Thomas, who shocked his coaches by playing despite a badly injured hamstring, then pulled expertly on a sweep, allowing Portis to rumble down the left sideline for 12 yards. "Some people didn't want me to play," Thomas said. "But how am I going to miss this?"

Gibbs presented another look to the Giants on the next play, running out of a "heavy" package with just one receiver as Portis churned inside for three yards to the 42. Portis headed to the bench for a breather and Ramsey tossed his first pass of the contest, a 13-yard completion to H-back Chris Cooley. Reserve runner Ladell Betts plowed for nine yards to the right side, with the Giants now anticipating runs up the middle or to the left. Betts gained three more yards, Coles took a screen pass for seven yards and Portis, now refreshed, sprinted for 13 yards on a sweep.

"We knew exactly what the Redskins would do," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said, "and we still couldn't stop it. We couldn't stop the run."

Coles advanced another screen pass four yards and H-back Brian Kozlowski, who had caught just one pass all season, went in motion and was left open for an eight-yard gain down to the 1. The goal line has been Washington's nemesis all season, but Portis dove behind fullback Mike Sellers on his first attempt, and the Redskins had a lead they would not surrender.

Washington never faced a third down in the entire drive, gained at least three yards on every play and did not commit a penalty. It was the catalyst for everything that followed, including a 91-yard touchdown march on the second possession, as Washington's long-suffering offense finally came alive.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company