By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 17 -- The catchy slogans from last December no longer apply -- like "5-0 or we don't go" -- and there will be no return trip to the playoffs for the Washington Redskins, but the team's offense finally resembles the unit that emerged in 2005.
The Redskins (5-9) manhandled an opposing defense for a fourth straight game, with tailback Ladell Betts and the offensive line pounding another NFC opponent with playoff aspirations.
The days of fumbling for an offensive identity appeared to be over a month after Coach Joe Gibbs's mandate to return to "Redskins football," and associate head coach Al Saunders has certainly adhered to that in the game plan. The Redskins ran 31 times for 161 yards in Sunday's 16-10 victory over the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints (9-5) at the Superdome, with Betts topping 100 yards for the fourth straight time and securing an important role for next season, even with Clinton Portis's return from injuries.
The offensive line, strong in pass protection Sunday, was again too much for an opponent, even with Jon Jansen out with a torn calf muscle (reserve Todd Wade filled in nicely) and center Casey Rabach thriving despite having four screws surgically inserted in his broken left hand last week.
For the fourth straight game the Redskins relied on zone-blocking plays -- this time largely directed right up the middle -- and Betts, recently signed to a five-year contract extension, plowed ahead for 119 yards on 22 carries, leading two crucial scoring drives and following the punishing example of his linemen and blockers.
"They're screaming, 'Let us have it, we want to run it,' " Gibbs said of the offensive line. "They've taken the physical approach like we've talked about the last four weeks, and certainly they've responded. I'm just really proud of them."
Betts, 27, smashed the Saints for large chunks of yardage, just as he did against the Eagles last week when he set a career-high with 171 yards. The Redskins attacked the Saints between the hash marks, with the line creating big holes by using zone blocks, moving laterally in unison and blocking to a particular area rather than an individual opponent. Betts did the rest, selling the run in one direction, then making a crisp stop, cutting back hard and sprinting through the hole. He could recall few running plays Sunday that did not involve inside zone blocking, a technique that has been heavily emphasized the past four weeks.
"The last couple of weeks we've been picking up 10, 15 yards in chunks, and you don't see that very often," said Betts, who needs just 67 yards to top the 1,000-yard mark for the first time. "But that's a credit to the guys up front. They open up holes, and I just try to set them up and slice and hit the hole as fast as I can. That's pretty much how we've been picking up the big chunks at one time."
Betts had at least one run of 10 yards or longer in every quarter Sunday, and has a carry of eight yards or longer in 16 straight quarters. A third of his carries Sunday (8 of 22) went for at least eight yards. He has 30 carries of eight yards or more over the last four games (23 rushes of 10 yards or more) -- a staggering figure for even the most distinguished backs, let alone a career backup. Over the past four games Betts has rushed 107 times for 549 yards (5.1 per carry) and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry on the season (the NFL average is 4.0).
"Ladell has made a real statement," Gibbs said. "We know Ladell is an exceptional back. The way he's stepped up, he has led the team is what he's done. Since Clinton went out [with injuries in November], I think he's kind of taken the role. He's making a statement for himself. It is super important for us. I think it says a lot about us down the road that we have the quality backs we have."
Betts took his first carry 11 yards Sunday and set the tone for the afternoon. The Redskins continue to be starved for touchdowns and allow drives to die in the red zone because of procedural penalties, but rode Betts for vital sequences Sunday. In the second quarter he had rushes of 14, 10 and eights yards to set up Shaun Suisham's field goal, giving the Redskins a 13-7 lead. In the fourth quarter he and T.J. Duckett combined for seven rushes and 43 yards (carries of 11, 11 and 13 yards) and Washington took a 16-10 lead. That forced the Saints to get a touchdown on their final drive, and they were stopped short.
It was bulldozing football, the kind offensive line coach Joe Bugel loves, and Saunders has embraced.
"Bugel doesn't care how it looks, he just wants to beat somebody down up front," tackle Chris Samuels said. "And Coach Saunders did a great job of putting us in position to run the ball and staying with it."
Guard Randy Thomas said: "This is what we do. The teams that play us now, they know the style of play we're going to bring to the table. We can build off this."
The Redskins' starting linemen, most of whom are signed to lucrative contracts, are overjoyed at the turn of events. Smash-mouth football is their forte, and after succumbing to lapses of inconsistent play, they are finishing strong. All are beat up to some degree, and Rabach, playing his best football ever this month, personified the unit Sunday. He managed to snap the ball and be effective despite a bulky cast on his left (non-snapping) hand, and left wearing a big smile and his old-school Milwaukee Brewers cap.
"There was no way they were keeping me out of this game," Rabach said. "We've got some great guys on this line, and I can't give up on them."