Defense, Portis Will Do, for Now

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, September 12, 2005

Until Patrick Ramsey emerges or Mark Brunell regains at least some of his old form, what the Redskins did yesterday is what they're going to have to do indefinitely. We saw the formula for victory against the Bears: play great defense and get at least 100 yards from Clinton Portis.

This is what the Redskins can do at the moment, maybe all they can do: hit the other guy in the mouth on defense, and move the chains enough on offense to kick the occasional field goal and allow the defense to rest. Hey, John Riggins, Joe Theismann and Art Monk aren't walking through that door.

Yesterday, the Redskins asked the defense to make plays even when the ball wasn't snapped.

Here's the key sequence of the season opener: Chicago's Thomas Jones stopped for a three-yard loss by Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs; Bears false start; Bears false start; Bears false start; Chicago's Kyle Orton sacked by Redskins defensive end Demetric Evans for a 10-yard loss to force third and 38 with 6 minutes 1 second to play. Ballgame.

Joe Gibbs can say that the raucous home fans caused the Bears to be confused and commit that trio of false-start penalties that took them out of what could have been game-winning field goal range in the fourth quarter. Personally, I'll take dead silence and Gregg Williams's defense playing mind games with a quarterback making his NFL debut. The Bears didn't make unforced errors in that sequence; the Redskins forced those mistakes, all of them. They changed defensive fronts. They faked blitzing Orton with people they had no intention of blitzing. They made him call audibles with the play clock running out. "We showed them," Springs said, "a double corner blitz and they tried to audible," which forced one false start penalty. Or, as linebacker Marcus Washington said, "They know we're a blitzing team, so we got down there with one foot up and eyes all big."

And Orton, who this time last year was playing for Purdue University, got discombobulated, at least once fooled completely. Three times, 15 yards.

"The kid did pretty well," defensive end Phillip Daniels said, "but he seemed rattled toward the end."

The Redskins rattled him, as they should have. No rookie quarterback should go on the road and in his first start beat a team with a defense as good as the one the Redskins have. You hit him, you throw stuff at him he's never seen. You act as if you're in one defense when you're really in another. You put people on the field he's not expecting. You play to your strengths. You expect to pitch a shutout. "That's what we talked about," Springs said, "giving up nothing."

When Gibbs mentioned the defense, he didn't stop with Williams, the assistant head coach-defense, and Greg Blache, the defensive coordinator; he singled out every defensive assistant, as he should have.

Of course, the defense won the game, overcoming sub-par passing, a special teams turnover that led to the Bears' only points, and the opponent. Williams runs from credit, but he's getting it whether he likes it or not. "Just when you think you've got us figured out," Springs said, "he's got another package, he's come up with something else. We knew we had to come after [Orton] today, mentally and physically. Muhsin Muhammad even told me before the game, 'We know what you're going to try to do to him.' "

But the Bears aren't good enough offensively, not yet, to counter the Redskins' defense, just as the Redskins, offensively, aren't good enough to counter the Bears' defense. The game played out just the way it figured to: hard hitting and one-dimensional. Two defenses that could be top five in the NFL this season manhandled quarterback-challenged offenses, and the 9-7 result should surprise nobody.

I'm sure, given the history of "quarterback controversies" around here, that most folks will spend all their available breath debating Brunell-or-Ramsey between now and the game against the Cowboys a week from tonight. Ramsey, who certainly hasn't inspired confidence among the coaches, didn't help his cause in the three series he played yesterday. The first ended with him throwing an interception. The second ended with Jon Jansen recovering his fumble on third down. The third ended with him losing a fumble to the Bears on a hang-'em-high sack by Chicago's Lance Briggs. (Please, let's not have any whining about Briggs's tackle. That's football. How do you think Dick Lane got the name "Night Train"? If a quarterback can't take a hit, then as the rabid Jack Lambert once said, "Put a dress on 'em!" What is this, flag football?)

But just because Ramsey really, really struggled doesn't mean Brunell was Steve Young, okay? Brunell looks better than he did last year, but last year he was a ghost. Brunell is almost certain to start in Dallas, which would make me start drooling if I were a Cowboys defender. Truth is, neither guy is worth getting excited about.

Luckily for the Redskins, Portis is. Since joining the Redskins, Portis has rushed for 100 yards or more six times. The Redskins have won all six of those games. When Gibbs said the offense did two really good things -- hold the ball late and move out of the shadow of the goal line successfully -- he was talking largely about things Portis did. He and Ladell Betts ran so well against a nasty Bears defense that it ought to provide Gibbs with some options as he plots for the Cowboys next week. Portis seemed to run tougher as the game progressed. In fact, he carries himself with the toughness of a defensive player. With Betts's continued improvement, Gibbs has told Portis to go 100 mph until he's winded, then come to the sideline and turn it over to Betts for a few plays. Right now, Portis and Betts behind a stout offensive line are the best things the Redskins have going offensively.

Still, it's clear the defense is going to have to carry the team for the first few games, at least, as was the case all of last season. Daniels, bless his heart, played with the offensively challenged Bears, too, before coming to Washington. Asked about the lack of offensive production, Daniels said he felt pretty good about the offense keeping the ball long enough (34:15 to the Bears' 25:45) to keep the defense rested and fresh. Hey, that's better than three-and-punt, which characterized the Redskins' offense last season. Daniels said he believes the offense is going to come around sooner, not later. "And they've got us," he said of the defense, "until they get there."

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