By Rick Maese
Friday, November 13, 2009
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."
It's been awhile since Betts had such an opportunity. In November 2006, Portis was placed on season-ending injured reserve, and Betts posted 100-yard games each of the next five weeks. In the sixth game -- the season-finale -- Betts had 92 yards.
But Portis was healthy to start the next season and Betts hasn't had an opportunity to start a regular season game since. Betts spent most of the past 2 1/2 seasons impressing coaches and teammates during practice -- and then watching from the sideline on Sundays.
"It's got to be hard to be a guy who works his behind off the way he does and just, 'Okay, I'm second. I'm going to get it when I get it. But I'm going to practice every day,' " said wide receiver Santana Moss. "I mean, he goes to work. This guy here, he's one of the guys, you see him in practice, he's always flying around, he's always doing what he has to do.
"When he gets his chance, you don't want to say, 'Okay, Clinton's out,' because you know what [Portis] can do," Moss continued. "But when Ladell gets it, you have that confidence knowing there's not going to be a let-off."
While Betts is expected to start, coaches will likely rotate in Rock Cartwright in third-down situations. Betts and Cartwright are close friends off the field and can empathize with one another. But they both realize that a healthy Portis, even if his numbers are down, is this team's featured back.
"You can't get frustrated," Cartwright said. "You know Clinton's the man, he's the big money guy, so he's going to play. When your opportunity comes, you just got to be ready."
Coaches are hoping that mentality and the effort Cartwright and Betts consistently put forth during practice pays off against Denver. Still, they'd feel more comfortable if Betts hadn't already missed two practices leading up to the Sunday's game.
"We get back to the situation we had when Clinton wasn't practicing. 'Man alive, if he doesn't practice, how effective can you be?' " asks Smith. "The reason why Ladell's been effective is because he's been practicing. Now he doesn't practice. There's a drop-off. Now the other two guys [Cartwright and Ganther] are practicing. So you know, we can't win for losing in that case."