The Offense Didn't Look Right, So Zorn Uses What's Left: The Running Game

Clinton Portis caps a third-quarter drive with a nine-yard touchdown run that cuts the Saints' lead to 17-15. The Redskins called five running plays to the left side for 44 yards on the possession.
Clinton Portis caps a third-quarter drive with a nine-yard touchdown run that cuts the Saints' lead to 17-15. The Redskins called five running plays to the left side for 44 yards on the possession. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason La Canfora
Monday, September 15, 2008

No matter the origins of one's offensive philosophy, regardless of whether a coach's lineage can be traced back to Bill Walsh or Don Coryell, lining up and powering the ball behind a Pro Bowl left tackle is generally an idea worth pursuing. Particularly on an unbearably sticky afternoon, against an opponent with a penchant for putting up points.

There are no lack of original ideas bouncing around the always-churning mind of Redskins Coach Jim Zorn, but on the day in which Zorn earned his first NFL victory, an afternoon that most will remember for Jason Campbell's game-winning 67-yard bomb to Santana Moss, it was Zorn's decidedly mainstream decision to stick with the ground game that provided substantial returns.

Since he was hired in February, Zorn has opted to couple his version of the West Coast offense (Walsh's brainchild) with the preexisting ground scheme, established by Joe Gibbs (via Coryell). The choice to maintain Gibbs's running scheme resulted in more work for Zorn and his coaches this summer, but looked like a smart decision in Washington's 29-24 comeback win at FedEx Field yesterday. The Redskins rushed for 149 yards, draining New Orleans' defense and keeping the offense afloat while the passing game endured its ups and downs.

"We've been a pretty decent running football team the last four years here," center Casey Rabach said, "and things haven't really changed personnel-wise and play-wise in the run game. It's nice to see Coach Zorn sticking to it when it's working, and obviously the West Coast offense isn't fit exactly for that, but he's evolving with us, and we're evolving with him."

Zorn knew a good thing when he saw it. The running game was productive from the opening snaps toward the side anchored by left tackle Chris Samuels, and tailback Clinton Portis (21 rushes for 96 yards and two touchdowns) plundered the Saints' defense for four quarters. Of 28 running plays called, excluding Campbell's scrambles, 16 went to the left side for 109 yards (a gaudy 6.8 per carry); the 12 runs to right or up the middle produced just 39 total yards.

"Chris has been to the Pro Bowl every year since I've been here," said Portis, now in his fifth season in Washington. "We know what our bread and butter is."

Zorn has certainly put unique touches on the running attack. Several times Portis and backup tailback Ladell Betts were in the backfield together. He called more passes to the backfield, as Portis, Betts and fullback Mike Sellers combined for five catches. But mostly the former left-handed quarterback, was, well, left-handed with his play calling, too.

When Campbell was shaky (a mundane 74.4 passer rating in the first half), the running game sustained things (5.2 yards per carry in the half). Zorn called 13 running plays in the second half -- making a point to stick with the smash-mouth elements of his scheme even when the team trailed the Saints -- and 10 went to the left. New Orleans often played with two deep safeties, rather than stacking extra bodies near the line, and Zorn alertly took what was given to him rather than go out of his way to show off for the home crowd in his first regular season game at FedEx.

"A lot of the run game is repetition, and we were able to call the same runs a couple of times in a row," left guard Pete Kendall said.

Overall, the Redskins had rushes of 9, 10, 13, 14 and 27 yards going left. Nine of their 16 rushes in that direction went for five yards or more; just one carry lost yardage on that side.

Tight end "Chris Cooley and Chris Samuels did a really nice job on the point of attack on that [right] defensive end," Zorn said. "We established the line of scrimmage. We got the edge."

The seeds of Zorn's confidence in running left were planted in the Sept. 4 loss at New York. Most of what the offense attempted was thwarted, and Portis was often mauled in the backfield, but quietly the Redskins ran nine times for 54 yards to the left side. For an offense seeking an identity, it made sense to continue that trend yesterday.

Portis began slowly, feeling fatigued in the humidity and lining up too close to the line of scrimmage, which caused him to misread his blocks. "I told coach, 'It's on me, I got to scoop back,' " Portis said. "And once I got to the depth I was supposed to be at, then things opened up and the offensive line played great."

Zorn called four straight runs to open Washington's first scoring drive, with the final three all going to the left side for 32 yards, including a 27-yard end around by wide receiver Santana Moss (191 total yards). Already by then, Portis had the sense Samuels and Kendall might be able to get to linebacker depth any time they wanted, and Zorn made Sellers more of a fixture in this game plan, adding more beef to the backfield.

The Redskins trimmed the deficit to 17-15 in the third quarter by again riding the left side. All five running plays on that drive went to the left (for 44 yards), including Portis's nine-yard touchdown surge, finally breaking a string of settling for field goal attempts. The offensive line had been pounded by its last three opponents dating from the preseason (New York, Jacksonville and Carolina), but played with the street-fighting mentality demanded by offensive line coach Joe Bugel.

This touchdown embodied all of that. The Redskins lined up in an I-formation and delivered the football equivalent of an uppercut to the jaw. Samuels and Kendall manhandled their blocks and Sellers blew through the Saints' defense to personally escort Portis across the goal line. The play was designed to go outside, but when the Saints moved linebackers to the edge, Sellers and Portis pressed it back inside and scored.

"At the end of the game, the team that can run the ball better and not turn the ball over will win the game," said Saints Coach Sean Payton, as big a passing zealot as there is, but a realist about the NFL nonetheless.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company