Redskins' Saunders Says Run Must Be Established

Al Saunders, the associate head coach-offense, hopes the return of running back Clinton Portis, above, from an injured shoulder, will help cure the Redskins' offensive ills.
Al Saunders, the associate head coach-offense, hopes the return of running back Clinton Portis, above, from an injured shoulder, will help cure the Redskins' offensive ills. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

Of all the problems with the Washington Redskins' offense that Al Saunders must fix, one in particular consumes him. Saunders often worked through the night this week addressing the problems with pass protection, the lack of any downfield passing game and the struggles of starting quarterback Mark Brunell. But his main focus is resuscitating the running game.

Saunders is under intense pressure just two games into his tenure as associate head coach-offense, and while his résumé includes offenses perennially ranked in the top five in the NFL and a Super Bowl title, that matters little now. Saunders anticipated some rough patches, but the inefficiency of the offense has surprised him. The return of running back Clinton Portis from his shoulder injury for tomorrow's game against the Houston Texans could provide a catalyst to get the offense going.

"The first and foremost thing we have to do is run the ball effectively, and as soon as we do that all the other things we like to do as an offensive football team will fall in suit," Saunders said. "Because as a play-caller, if you don't have that established foundation it's hard, and all of a sudden you're grasping at things trying to move the ball. You have a big play, then you have a little play and then a minus play, instead of being able to establish the run. It's like building up momentum as you continue to go. That's what we're working on, and when we get to that point I think we'll all feel much better than we do right now."

The Redskins' offense has produced just one touchdown in two defeats, and just one play of more than 25 yards. Saunders-run offenses were known for their deep passes and quick scores during his time as a coaching assistant with San Diego, St. Louis and Kansas City. But a powerful running attack has always been at the core. Saunders aims for a balance between runs and passes. The Chiefs rushed the ball 520 times last season and attempted 507 passes.

This season, Saunders has called 61 passes and 45 rushes. The offense has failed to dictate the pace of the game; instead the Redskins were forced to react, unsuccessfully, as Dallas and Minnesota dropped back their safeties, taking away the deep pass and shutting down the running game.

Saunders believes the only way to force the safeties to creep closer to the line and open up the long-range passing game is to run early and often.

"We have to create situations where teams have to honor our running game," Saunders said. "We've never been really a drop-back passing team. That's not what we want to be, but what happens when you get into a lot of third-down [and long] situations is you get very predictable. . . . When we get the running game established and going to the level we need it to be, then I think everything else falls into place, because you become a team that can keep someone off balance and you become unpredictable. Until we do that we're going to have a difficult time being the kind of offense we'd like to be."

Portis's understudies never got much of a shot. Ladell Betts leads the team with just 19 carries. Portis, Betts and tailback T.J. Duckett have rushed 34 times collectively for just 125 yards -- a 3.7-yard average.

Portis, however, has declared himself "105 percent" fit for tomorrow's game and Coach Joe Gibbs said that after a full week of practice Portis looks impressive and healthy.

Saunders spoke to the offense Thursday about the need for balance, and told the players that 52 is their new magic number. By his analysis a team that achieves 52 "positive" plays -- running plays (even for a loss) plus completed passes -- in a game has a lofty winning percentage. The Redskins had 42 such plays against Minnesota and 38 against Dallas. Saunders also hopes to run 70 total plays each game; Washington is averaging 56.

Despite the early foibles, Gibbs has expressed complete faith in Saunders, and players point to the track record of his offensive system. "We believe in this system," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "We believe in the philosophy behind it."

There has been a lengthy adjustment period for the players, however, with some trying to hone the timing and precision of the new offense, although it encompasses much of the numbering and terminology of Gibbs's offense.

"For me, I thought it would be a fairly easy transition with the way we label things and everything," Gibbs said. "And I'd think by putting the two offenses together we should be able to take a big leap."

Saunders has been criticized by some for implementing too much of his 700-page playbook too soon. But the coach, long labeled an innovator, believes that to stand still is to fall behind. He continues to add nuances each week based on the particular opponent, feeling it is the only way to stay ahead of the opposition.

"We have to execute what we're being asked to do in order to be successful," Saunders said. "The worst thing to do is all of sudden cut back. We're trying to expand an offense that last year had 120 total yards of offense in a playoff game. We're trying to expand an offense that last year didn't score a touchdown until the last three minutes of the second game.

"So that's why we're here. That's why we're doing what we're doing. Now, it's not progressed as fast as we'd like, and we all know that. But I really feel confident that if we keep working like we've been working on the field, eventually we'll get there."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company