Smash-Mouth Is Back, Baby

Clinton Portis
Redskins running back Clinton Portis leads a surging rushing attack that is keeping opponents off-balance. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tailback Clinton Portis could be forgiven for boasting about his three straight 100-yard rushing games, which coincided with the three-game winning streak that saved the Washington Redskins' season, but he isn't basking in his accomplishments. After routinely stringing together such outings during two seasons with Denver, Portis believes he is merely doing what he is heavily compensated to do, and is more concerned with those afternoons over the last two months in which he failed to reach 100 yards.

"I mean, it's okay, but considering I could have about six or seven [in a row], it ain't that exciting," Portis said of his streak, the longest of his two-year Redskins career.

What does get Portis animated, however, is the philosophy of Washington's offense the last few weeks, and a renewed dedication to grinding out yardage on the ground. Players and coaches have been talking about the smash-mouth identity of this team since Coach Joe Gibbs took over in January 2004, but only late this season has it truly manifested itself. With the season on the line, Gibbs has called on the rushing attack to right the club, and it has. A stout ground game coupled with a relentless defense has the Redskins back in playoff contention entering Saturday's key game with the New York Giants. It's a simple but effective December formula that has carried many teams into the postseason.

Over the last four games, Gibbs has reversed the nature of his offense. Washington has rushed 147 times (60 percent of plays) in that span, compared to just 97 passes. Through the first 10 games (when the Redskins were 5-5), the team ran 46 percent of the time. The Redskins (8-6) have used more rushes than passes in four straight games, after doing so only three times in the first 10 games. The trend has been met by near-universal acclaim by the players -- Portis, naturally, among the leaders of the chorus -- with the Redskins establishing a physical ethos week after week.

"It does feel good," Portis said of the run-heavy dynamic. "It's our bread and butter, and we're finally using it. Any time you can get that going, man, it opens up a lot and does a lot for your team."

Sunday's 35-7 dismantling of rival Dallas was flawless on many levels, but the ability to convert on early turnovers, grab a quick lead and churn out yards on the ground followed the coaches' ideal script. Washington ran 40 times and threw just 20 times, with the Cowboys' defense left guessing and off-balance, and quarterback Mark Brunell particularly efficient in the red zone. When the Redskins rush 34 or more times, they are 11-0 the last two seasons, and they are 3-16 otherwise. In the chill of December, the ability and willingness to plow ahead with the run is even more indispensable.

"It's going to be important to set the tempo in these football games because we have to establish some sort of pace, and we did a good job of that this past Sunday, how we came out and ran the football and really put some pressure on the defense," said 20-year veteran offensive lineman Ray Brown. "And our defense, I think, really fed off that. I think our team this past week really felt connected in that we fed off each other and really got into a good flow."

Gibbs is quick to point out that the ratio of running plays to passing plays is often predicated on game situations, with the score being the chief consideration. The Redskins trailed often in the first 10 games -- "I think you're going to get more runs when you have a lead," Gibbs said.

Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, said that regardless of the play-calling outcome, Gibbs wants to overpower opponents.

"Joe Gibbs wants his team to be physical," Williams said, "and you know what, every single meeting that Joe has in front of this team he talks about how we're going to win these physical battles. 'I don't care what else happens in this ballgame, we're going to be physical.' And it's nice to see us playing that way, especially at the end of the season. That's when it's time to be that way. Not to say it's not important all the time, but to be more and more and more and more physical as the year goes on, that's good."

Portis has been the primary beneficiary, although he must now run without the aid of right guard Randy Thomas, who is recovering from Monday night's season-ending surgery on his broken right leg. Portis is eighth in the NFL with 1,296 rushing yards -- fourth in the NFC -- and is well within range of Stephen Davis's franchise record of 1,432 yards set in 2001. Portis, who will never be confused with Davis, has played his best football the last six weeks.

Portis has averaged 25 carries in that span -- up from his season average of 21 -- and 113 yards per game with four of his eight rushing touchdowns. He has run for 87 yards or more in all six of those games, and topped 100 in four. Where before the Redskins were prone to going into the shotgun formation on third and short, the team has been looking to punch the ball through lately, invigorating not just the running backs but the offensive line.

"That's our style, being physical up front, smash it in there, and play great defense," left tackle Chris Samuels said. "Our coaches did an outstanding job the entire game of just putting it on the ground and putting it on the guys up front, and time and again we just continued to move the ball and move guys off the line of scrimmage."


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