By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006
Needing to win their final five games after starting the season 5-6, the Washington Redskins last year agreed to what amounted to a radical change: They embraced power football. As much as a resurrected defense propelled the Redskins into the playoffs, so, too, did a commitment to the old-school concept of punishing defenses with the running game.
It is a rediscovery of the power game that the Redskins appear to again seek leading up to Sunday's suddenly critical game with the 0-2 Houston Texans. Over the last few days, and especially after practice yesterday, players and coaches focused on the imbalance -- too much passing, not enough running -- they believe has in large part kept them from winning.
That recognition was combined with the expected return of starting running back Clinton Portis, who completed a full practice yesterday for the first time since injuring his left shoulder at Cincinnati in the first preseason game.
"Clinton Portis had a very good day today. No problems, no complaints," said Redskins director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer, who said Portis would be listed as probable on the injury report submitted to the league. "He did everything, even took a couple of hits and did fine. It's the most he's done since the injury, practice-wise."
Rediscovering the run is an old, effective formula. During last year's five-game regular season winning streak, the Redskins' running backs averaged 38.6 carries and 168.8 yards per game. Until that point, Portis, as well as each member of the offensive line, had expressed frustration that the Redskins had abandoned the power running game. The decision to go to it effectively changed the season.
That's an approach that better suits the offensive line, which prefers run blocking to pass protection. During last season's tear, the sight of right guard Randy Thomas and right tackle Jon Jansen kicking out and plowing downfield was as important as Portis's running. No game was more illustrative of the Redskins' change of identity than a 24-9 win Dec. 4 at St. Louis when Portis and Rock Cartwright rushed for 254 yards. The signature play of that game came in the final minute of the first quarter, when Portis raced through a crater-size hole produced by Jansen and Thomas for a 47-yard touchdown.
But two weeks into the new season, such muscular displays have not materialized. In losses to Minnesota and Dallas, the Redskins have given the ball to their running backs just 34 times for 125 yards, an average of 62.5 yards per game. Portis played in the opener and carried 10 times for 39 yards, but was inactive against Dallas. Ladell Betts, Portis's replacement, has carried 19 times for 62 yards in two games. T.J. Duckett made his first appearance as a Redskin against Dallas, and carried five times for 24 yards.
"He's getting more comfortable with what we're doing," running backs coach Earnest Byner said of Duckett. "He's showing that speed burst that surprised people, too." Meanwhile, Cartwright hasn't had a carry this season.
But Portis is the key. In most cases, the score dictates when a team can run the football, but the Redskins did not commit to the run even in close games. Against Minnesota, the Redskins never trailed by more than one score. Against Dallas, the Redskins' offense took the field trailing by 10 points in the first quarter, and by seven for most of the game, and yet did not consistently run the football.
"It's real important when people can play an umbrella coverage and their front seven can take away your running game, it complicates everything," associate head coach Al Saunders said, adding that the return of Portis, who compiled 1,732 total yards last season, could change the balance. "Last year, with 1,700 yards, that was pretty efficient. You'd always like to have your best players available, but we should be better than we were the last two games with the players we have."
Against Minnesota, the Redskins were only in short-yardage situations -- that is, second or third downs of four yards or less -- four times. Running backs received the ball twice, and gained a first down once.
In three quarters against the Cowboys -- the period before Dallas broke open the game with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn -- the Redskins were in short-yardage situations only five times, all in the first half. Betts was critical of not getting a first down on third and one in the first quarter when he cut over right tackle and was belted behind the line by Dallas safety Roy Williams.
"With the opportunities I had, I think it was some good, some bad," Betts said. "But on that third and one, I've got to get that. I don't care if all 11 guys fall down, I have to get that first down."
A new wrinkle in Saunders's scheme is running the ball with wide receivers Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El on laterals, misdirection plays and reverses. While Redskins running backs have carried the ball 34 times, Moss and Randle El have seven carries for 49 yards. But while those plays are flashy, they are antithetical to what the Redskins like to think of as their power-game personality.
"We have to stay on the field," Jansen said. "What we need to do is establish the run, which is going to help us get the ball downfield. We have to make them bring up guys in the box. We have to make them respect the run."