By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Clinton Portis was ready to take on a heavy workload Sunday against Tennessee, but that chance never came. Instead of a straightforward power running game, the Washington Redskins went with a more diverse attack.
"How many times do you have to get to the point of saying, 'Put it on my shoulders?' " Portis said. "If you know what I'm capable of, you know I'm on your team. If you go over our roster, you know people are going to look and say, 'We've got to stop Portis.' Give them the opportunity to stop Portis."
The matchup with Tennessee figured to produce a rushing onslaught for Washington. The Titans were allowing an NFL-worst 172 rushing yards per game, and as the Redskins built an early 14-3 lead, their ground attack was working. Yet Portis became more of a spectator than a workhorse.
He had 14 carries -- seven in each half -- as the Redskins (2-4) lost their second straight game. Al Saunders, the Redskins' associate head coach and playcaller, opted to divide the ball among all of his potential playmakers and opted for reverses and end arounds rather than having his feature back plow into the heart of the Tennessee defensive line.
The Titans were without Albert Haynesworth, their best tackle and run-stopper, because of a five-game suspension. But Portis was handed the ball on consecutive plays only twice all game, hardly enough to exhaust a defense that remained fresh in the decisive fourth quarter.
On the two occasions when the Redskins' offense has flourished this season, Portis has played a critical role. The Redskins ran 40 times or more in consecutive wins over Houston and Jacksonville and reached the .500 mark, but played from behind most of Week 5 at New York, running just 20 times as a team. The team rushed 26 times Sunday. Wide receivers, fullback Mike Sellers and reserve tailback Ladell Betts accounted for only two fewer carries than Portis, who set the single-season franchise rushing record in 2005 and has topped 1,500 yards three times in his four-year career.
Coach Joe Gibbs said that the second-half struggles of the running game on Sunday -- 10 rushes for 13 yards as a team -- precluded using the run more frequently as the game progressed. But Portis was barely used in any quarter. In nearly 18 minutes, from late in the first quarter until the two-minute warning in the first half, Portis carried the ball just twice. He rushed only three times in the third quarter (picking up six yards on one run and eight yards total), and only once did he run on consecutive plays in the second half, scoring a four-yard touchdown on the second carry.
"If you do rush the ball 10 times and average 1.2 [yards per carry], you're going to put yourself in some bad situations and you are going to be throwing the football," Gibbs said. "So I think one thing leads to the other, and when you rush the football you've got to get enough yardage to put yourself in good position so you're in mixed downs and can keep them guessing. If you put yourself in third and six, seven, eight, you're going to get yourself in trouble there."
Gibbs did not dispute that losing the rushing battle to the Titans, who ran 41 times for 194 yards, was the foremost factor in the 25-22 loss. "The hard-core base principles for us are, if we get out-rushed -- which we did -- we're going to lose the football game," he said.
Over his career, Gibbs's Redskins are 120-19 when rushing more than 30 times in a game, and 22-61 when failing to do so.
Since Gibbs returned to the team in 2004, using Portis has been equally important. The Redskins are 10-1 when the team has more than 25 carries in a game since Gibbs ended his retirement. But with Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd joining Pro Bowl receiver Santana Moss and tight end Chris Cooley this year, Saunders has a bevy of players to use. Portis said he understands that.
"Clinton would love to go all the time, but at the same time we have a game plan," Portis said. "We go into the game with a game plan, and if something changes, it changes. I can't say, 'Put it in my hands, I can make it happen.' Because everybody on the field feels the same way."
Saunders's egalitarian intentions seemed clear on the opening play of the game Sunday when he called a reverse for Moss. That play was marred by a fumble, but three plays later Saunders made the same call again and Moss gained 35 yards. Finesse and gadget plays ruled the day for Washington. And when Portis did run, Saunders rarely called the power plays the team considers its bread-and-butter -- running between the guard and tackle or lining up in a two tight-end formation and churning behind Sellers with right guard Randy Thomas pulling.
Facing an undefeated Indianapolis Colts team Sunday that can strike quickly would seem to be an ideal situation for straightforward running plays. Indianapolis is allowing 167 rushing yards per game -- worst in the league -- and plowing away on the ground would be the simplest way to keep quarterback Peyton Manning off the field. There are no shortage of Portis's teammates hoping for just that come this weekend.
"I'm old school, man," Thomas said. "I'm more of a smash-mouth guy, you know. We've got to find a way to get back to that."