A photo caption of the article incorrectly said that Clinton Portis's touchdown gave the Washington Redskins a 10-3 lead in their victory over the Miami Dolphins. The touchdown gave Washington a 10-7 lead.
Off to a Running Start
Monday, September 10, 2007
During pregame warmups yesterday, Washington Redskins tailback Clinton Portis was a vortex of emotion, adrenaline pumping, his mind racing. He said he spent the first half of the season-opening game against Miami in that overheated state, treating each handoff as an opportunity to declare himself back from an injury-marred 2006, always in a sprint.
Washington's offense sputtered for much of an error-filled game, with quarterback Jason Campbell's play varying by the series and the Redskins and the Miami Dolphins lamenting a litany of missed opportunities on a hot, sunny day. Neither squad could manage more than a four-point lead and both were desperate for a victory after slumping last year, but as fatigue mounted it was Portis, his tailback mate Ladell Betts, and a makeshift offensive line that carried the Redskins to a 16-13 overtime win before 90,163 at FedEx Field. The dominant power running game -- a defining characteristic of victories during the second Joe Gibbs era -- had returned, and, after missing nearly all preseason because of knee tendinitis, Portis was in top form as well.
The Redskins persevered despite losing right tackle Jon Jansen to a fractured dislocation of his right ankle early in the second quarter -- an injury that could be season-ending. Undrafted rookie Stephon Heyer (Maryland) stepped in and the line simply outmuscled Miami's fourth-ranked defense in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Washington's defense -- ranked 31st last year -- took on the characteristics of its 2004-2005 heyday, eliminating the Dolphins' rushing attack (66 yards on 20 carries), thriving on third down (Miami converted 4 of 13 chances) and limiting Miami to 273 yards overall. (The Redskins surrendered 356 per game in 2006).
Washington's winning formula rarely changes: stout defense and inspired running. Portis, who set a franchise rushing mark in 2005, watched Betts prosper last year and has bristled at suggestions he may be in decline. After a pedestrian start yesterday, he and Betts led a 191-yard rushing attack against a run-hostile opponent. Although, they had only 76 yards on 20 carries through three quarters (3.8-yard average), they had 81 yards on 14 rushes the rest of the way (a 5.8-yard average). They set up Shaun Suisham's 44-yard field goal for a brief fourth-quarter lead, and Suisham's 39-yard game winner less than six minutes into overtime.
"I came in at halftime and talked with Ladell, and he just told me to calm down," Portis said. "And I calmed down in the second half and everything turned out all right."
Portis and Betts, slated for a more equal roles this season, failed to find an early rhythm. But as play-caller Al Saunders fed them the ball with more regularity, each found his groove. Of their 14 runs in the final quarter and overtime, half went for five yards or more; when the Dolphins began to wilt, the Redskins rode a two-pronged backfield to victory.
"We wanted to pound it," said offensive line coach Joe Bugel. "We're a well-conditioned football team, you can tell that."
Portis took the opening play of overtime six yards from the 20, then sliced the Dolphins for 14 more. On third and seven, tight end Chris Cooley, lined up wide and, crossed to the middle for a 10-yard reception. (Washington converted half of its third-down chances.) Betts plunged ahead for 10 yards, and on third and four from the 31, Portis gutted Miami's defense for nine yards. "I get paid a lot of money to make that play," Dolphins Pro Bowl middle linebacker Zach Thomas said. "And I didn't make it." Gibbs opted to try to the field goal right then, on first down, and Suisham's third of the day won it.
"Me and Clinton were going two or three plays apiece, four at most," Betts said. "Having two running backs coming in fresh was hard on them. We wore them down."
The game had an ugly beginning for both teams. Campbell (12 for 21, 54.2 passer rating) forced a pass to Cooley in double-coverage for an easy interception on his first attempt of the game. (He hoisted a ball up for grabs later for a second interception.) Washington had just 95 yards at the half, while the Dolphins opened with three straight three-and-outs but rallied for a touchdown drive at the end of the half. Cam Cameron, a former Redskins assistant in his first game as an NFL head coach, wasted 20 seconds with poor clock management, but tight end Justin Peelle gained position on corner Carlos Rogers for a one-yard touchdown reception on fourth down as time expired for a 7-3 lead.
Miami enjoyed its only real offensive success when it picked on Rogers and fellow corner Fred Smoot on intermediate routes, but the deep passes that crushed Washington a year ago were largely negated by a move to more of a cover-3 scheme, with two corners and free safety Sean Taylor dividing the field into thirds. The Dolphins' running backs combined for just 47 yards, and while rookie safety LaRon Landry began the game being used near the line of scrimmage, the coaches went with more seven-man fronts later, with the Dolphins stifled on the ground.
"I bet there won't be a lot of people to run on that defense with Landry in the box," Cameron said.
The Redskins went ahead 10-7 on a six-play, 78-yard drive to open the second half, with Portis squirting 19 yards behind fullback Mike Sellers for a touchdown. Cooley took out defensive end Jason Taylor, last year's defensive player of the year, on the run to open a hole, and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El (who had a career high 162 receiving yards) delivering a strong block.
A flurry of field goals and a series of miscues forced overtime, including procedural penalties, a momentum-sapping intentional grounding from Dolphins quarterback Trent Green and a dropped interception by Smoot, who had 35 yards of open field in which to score a game-winning touchdown at the end of regulation had he just held onto the ball.
"In a game like that you go through emotion after emotion after emotion," Gibbs said. "At the end you're emotionally worn out."