On Ground, Redskins Are Not Themselves

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By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2007

The last time the Washington Redskins' offense took the field, it squandered four opportunities to gain a single yard and tie the New York Giants in the final seconds of regulation. Lost among the errors committed in their 24-17 loss -- play-calling, personnel decisions, opting to spike the ball on first down -- were the larger shortcomings in the running game.

The Redskins' offensive foundation is a physical running game but no one associated with it is satisfied with its production through three games. The offense remains stagnant again around the end zone -- Washington has just five touchdowns and has yet to score 21 points -- and has yet to resemble the unit that churned through opponents in the second half of 2006.

Coach Joe Gibbs expects tailbacks Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts to provide the squad's backbone, helping to ease in quarterback Jason Campbell and allowing the team to stymie defenses on play action. But the Redskins have yet to establish the rhythm and tempo that pulsed through the offense down the stretch a year ago, when only San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for more yards than Betts (Portis's injury-plagued season ended Nov. 12).

"We're leaving a lot of yards on the field," Portis said. "Myself, Ladell, [fullback] Mike [Sellers], are leaving a lot of yards on the field. We missed some reads that could have been bigger on some plays, and some runs that could have been bigger. We're really not clicking and everybody is trying to come together and finding a way to win, and finding a way to mesh. But once we finally click and everybody is finally on the same page and we can get the running game going, then I think it's going to be exciting."

The Redskins rank 17th in the NFL in rushing yards per carry (4.0), slightly below the league average of 4.1 and less than their average over the final five games of 2006 (4.9). The Redskins rank just 23rd in first downs per game -- often a barometer of running success -- and over the past two games Washington has dropped to an average of 3.5 yards per carry. Breakdowns have come in all forms: botched handoffs, poor calls from the offensive line, badly timed cuts from the runners.

"For the backs, it's reading blocks," Sellers said. "We're missing holes that we should hit, big gaping holes. And linemen getting their reads, maybe sometimes they miss a read. We need to peak, that's really what we're trying to do."

Center Casey Rabach said: "It's a matter of a missed block or a poor judgment of lane choice. But it's there, all the plays are there, all the techniques are there. It's just guys owning up to it and doing the job of getting it done."

At times, the two-pronged rushing approach has looked inspired -- most evidently in the second half of Week 1's overtime defeat of Miami -- and on other occasions the rotation seems to have stymied both running backs. Portis, who missed virtually the entire preseason with knee tendinitis, has yet to carry 20 times in a game, not surprising given his offseason hiatus, but that could change in coming weeks. He has shown bursts that mirror his old Pro Bowl form, but is still striving for consistency. Meanwhile, Betts, who starred last year in his first opportunity to be a feature back, is struggling to reach that level, though he remains an asset catching passes out of the backfield.

Portis has rushed 48 times for 227 yards -- a 4.7-yard average -- and has scored three touchdowns. Betts has just 82 yards on 30 carries -- a scant 2.7 average -- and no scores. Despite his slow start, there has been no running back controversy, only dashed hopes that the running game would pick up where it left off.

"It is different," Betts said. "It's a little bit of an adjustment period. I probably didn't realize how much of an adjustment period it would be. The biggest difference for me is coming off the bench as opposed to getting all the carries like I did at the end of the season. I don't have the same type of rhythm that I did when you run a play over and over and you start to figure out what somebody's doing. I'm coming in off the bench kind of cold sometimes, and it's a little bit different feel."

Never was the issue more glaring than at the end of the last game. Betts had not carried the ball since the second quarter, yet was called on for the final two carries even though Portis had been far more effective that day and on the season. Betts came in for Portis midway through that drive when coaches wanted a better pass-catching threat in the backfield, and Gibbs never sent Portis back in, later calling them "interchangeable."

Portis says he had no issues with the rotation and Betts getting the ball with the game on the line.


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