Though Washington Redskins running back Ladell Betts is expected to start his first game of the season this weekend, coaches aren't concerned with how he'll mesh with the rest of the first-team unit. Even though Clinton Portis starts on Sundays, Betts is the one who often spends much of the week preceding games playing with the starters.
In fact, offensive coordinator Sherman Smith says there might not be a backup running back in the NFL who practices with the first-team more than Betts does.
"You always wonder how it'll be when you have a guy out there who's practiced, getting in a rhythm with the offensive line. You wonder what would happen," Smith said. "And he didn't disappoint last Sunday."
Betts replaced Portis last Sunday in Atlanta when Portis suffered a concussion in the first quarter. Still recovering, Portis will not play this weekend against the Denver Broncos, Coach Jim Zorn said.
Even before the concussion -- the second Portis has suffered as a player -- Portis has missed practices this season because of nagging injuries. In addition, for years he has believed that he plays better on Sundays when he rests his body during the week. That has often meant Betts, Portis's backup since 2004, has been given more repetitions with the first team in the days leading up to games.
"It helps," Smith said of that practice time. "That's what I was trying to tell Clinton, even when he didn't practice: The practice isn't just for him but for the offensive linemen. They need him out there. They need a feel for what he's doing. And the line has a feel for Ladell since he's been practicing most of the time."
Oddly, as he prepares for his first regular season start since 2006, Betts has been nursing an ankle sprain and has been unable to practice this week. Coaches still expect him to be ready to start on Sunday.
"Fortunately, once the low-ankle sprains start healing up they don't re-aggravate," Zorn said. "You've got to really do something again to re-injure it. It's not like a high-ankle sprain. I think he'll be ready."
Tabbed before the season as the Redskins' third-down back, Betts didn't have many opportunities before Portis went down in Atlanta. He had only one or two carries in every game this season except for St. Louis (four) and Philadelphia (none).
But with Portis out, he had 70 yards on 15 carries in Atlanta last Sunday. His average of 4.7 yards per carry against the Falcons was higher than any Portis has posted this season, except for the Kansas City game when Portis had a 78-yard run and averaged 7.3 yards per run.
After the Falcons' game, Betts said he felt comfortable because he was finally able to establish a rhythm in the backfield.
"I felt he was getting in a groove," Smith said Thursday after practice. "It's different when you're the guy and you're getting those consistent carries, versus you get a carry every so often. Every runner wants to get a rhythm. They all do. That's why they hate to come out. And you hate to take them out when they are in a rhythm."