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.
"What I'm buying into is the team vibe," Portis said. "We're 2-1, and if we can find a way to go out and play as a team, all that wanting the ball and this or that, I'll be fine. I just want to win.
"I think for myself and Ladell and Rock [Cartwright] we are all just buying into it. When they put us in, it don't take five plays to warm up. We know we're going to be in there sparingly. You never know when your number's going to be called, and when it's called you have to go in and execute."
Regardless of the ballcarrier, the Redskins will have to restore the cohesion of the offensive line to thrive. Last year a well-tuned unit emerged after years of playing together, but now the Redskins have three new starters on the line and the right side in particular, comprised of guard Jason Fabini and tackle Todd Wade, faltered against the Giants in run blocking and pass protection.
The Redskins ran heavily to the left side against New York, as expected, and finding someone to replace injured right guard Randy Thomas in particular could be problematic. Rick DeMulling, a former starter in Detroit and Indianapolis, was signed before the Giants game and could push for playing time coming out of the bye, with his experience in zone blocking schemes working in his favor.
"Randy allows you to do some things that you wouldn't normally be able to do because of his athletic skills," associate head coach Al Saunders said. "But having said that, we have guys who have stepped in and played hard, and sometimes it takes a little time to discern exactly what they can do. But you really call the game for the running back as much as you do for the offensive linemen."
Saunders, like his players, realizes that the slow start of the first month is hardly unprecedented.
"In the preseason and offseason it's very hard to work on the run game itself, because you don't have pads on and we're a zone blocking team for the most part, and that requires real precise work and a lot of double-team blocking coming up to what we call the second level with the linebackers, and it takes time to mesh that," Saunders said. "Down the road we'd like to be averaging about five yards per rush, and we've got a lot of work to do in that regard."