'Defenses Fear Number 26'
Portis Rejuvenates the Offense, Redskins' Saunders Says

By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Carrying the unmoved posture of a perfectionist, Washington Redskins associate head coach Al Saunders was sullen in celebration Sunday. He entered the glass elevator at Reliant Stadium immediately after his team's 31-15 win over the Houston Texans, his expressionless mouth a thin, horizontal line with no hint of curling into a smile.

On the eight-story trip from the coaches' box down to the field level, Saunders's tone was low and even, unbefitting a man whose offense had just produced 495 yards. The Redskins had won their first game. The offense was dominant. His team rushed for 234 yards and his quarterback, Mark Brunell, had redeemed something of a risky short-passing game plan -- in the two previous weeks Saunders had been criticized for not throwing more often downfield -- by completing 22 consecutive passes, an NFL record. Yet Saunders seemed funereal.

"From a technical aspect," he said morosely, "we made more mistakes in that game than in the previous two."

But by the time Saunders walked down the long corridor toward the Redskins' locker room, his mood had turned. There was in him a sunburst after all. The reason was because he was talking about Clinton Portis.

In the management-driven world of the NFL, where the ubiquitous culture still often trumps the individual talent of the players, Saunders's energetic response to Portis's return was something of an anomaly. When the Redskins' defense played without Phillip Daniels, Cornelius Griffin, Shawn Springs and Renaldo Wynn at times during the preseason, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams would not acknowledge -- at least publicly -- the consequences of such a severe talent drain, preferring to adhere to his belief that the scheme would overcome the loss of key personnel. Success was determined more by the plan than the players.

Saunders was never as fiercely dogmatic as Williams, but for stretches seemed convinced that if put in positive situations, Ladell Betts, Rock Cartwright and T.J. Duckett could compensate without a severe reduction in productivity.

The return of Portis shattered that notion. Portis rushed for 86 yards and caught two passes for 78 more, and Saunders was clear in his admission: Regardless of his now-famous 700-page playbook, the shifts, formation changes and his genuine innovativeness, Portis was the difference-maker. He was respectful of the abilities of his other running backs, but talent won out.

"There is something about those special runners, the elite ones," Saunders said. "They have that ability to affect the whole defensive structure. They can take a play that is going nowhere and turn it into something. They can take a good play and make it a spectacular one."

Saunders spoke of a certain unscientific mathematical formula that applied to his past difference-makers -- running backs Chuck Muncie, Marshall Faulk, Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson and now Portis -- in how, in his words, they "make my job easier." A play that appears headed for zero yards turns into a three-yard gain. Three-yard plays become eight, and eight becomes 28.

"We knew they were going to try to get the ball to Portis and we still couldn't get it done," Texans defensive tackle Seth Payne said. "Anytime you let a team do that to you, we're all at fault."

In his own way, Saunders, and to a lesser extent Coach Joe Gibbs in his Monday remarks, acknowledged the victory of talent over scheme by thinking ahead to Sunday's game with Jacksonville. Without the implied threat of Portis, the Redskins simply cannot execute their type of offense. Along the Reliant runway, Saunders spoke less technically and more viscerally about the difference.

"The difference is fear," he said. "Defenses fear number 26."

That fear, Saunders said, changes the defensive approach, even subconsciously. Players move before they're supposed to, in anticipation of what Portis can do. The half-second a defensive player spies Portis -- a half-second unused on Betts or Duckett, Cartwright, all good players but of lesser ability than Portis -- may be the very span of time Santana Moss breaks free of his man or Antwaan Randle El separates in the slot. That, Saunders said, is the inherent value of having a difference-maker on the field.

Thus, much of Saunders's game plan Sunday, he said, is in allowing great players to let their talent take over. If the Jaguars have the edge in overall talent as well as statistically -- opposing quarterbacks are only completing 49 percent of their passes against the Jaguars' defense and running backs are averaging just 3.2 yards per carry -- Saunders prepares to counter those numbers not by relying on an elaborate plan, but with talent.

"These types of players make you pay such close attention to them at all times," Saunders said of Portis. "And all you want to do is find as many ways possible to put the ball in their hands."

Even Gibbs was especially taken by Portis's ability to turn a five-foot shovel pass into a key 74-yard gain. As their time together continues, Gibbs reveals a greater admiration for Portis as a player.

"I wasn't surprised. I think Clinton is an exceptional player. Here's a guy who is a proven product," Gibbs said about whether he underestimated Portis's impact on his offense. "He's 1,500 yards every year. He's very aggressive. He loves to play, and all the things we go through joking around with Clinton, when it comes to a game, he understands how to play it and is as good as anyone I've seen."

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