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Redskins' Betts looks like overqualified understudy
With Portis out, backup posts team's best rushing day of season

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

After posting a rushing performance unlike any Redskins fans had seen this season, running back Ladell Betts was led to the interview room beneath FedEx Field. It's a postgame area usually reserved for the head coach and one or two star players. Betts is a guy whose own team misspelled the name on the back of his jersey during a preseason game this year.

"I was just joking on the way over here, I didn't remember how to get to this room," Betts said with a smile. "It's been so long."

Fortunately for the Redskins, he didn't have the same problem finding his way to the field for the team's first offensive possession. Starting for the first time since 2006, Betts proved to be a difference-maker in Washington's 27-17 win over the Broncos. The Redskins snapped a four-game losing streak, and Betts posted the team's best rushing performance of the season.

Clinton Portis, sidelined because of a concussion suffered against the Atlanta Falcons a week ago, watched the game in street clothes, cheering on his teammates.

Asked after the game whether he'd consider a lineup change when Portis is healthy enough to return, Coach Jim Zorn said simply, "No."

But the difference in the Redskins' offense with Betts in the backfield -- and an offensive line that refused to get pushed around -- was undeniable. Not only were Betts' s 114 yards more than anything Portis has posted this season, but the team's 174 rushing yards and 40 carries were also both season highs.

Plus, Sunday's performance came against a Denver defense that was ranked third overall in the NFL and No. 8 against the run.

Betts's one-yard plunge into the end zone with 2 minutes 44 seconds remaining snapped a 17-17 tie and provided the team's winning touchdown. With two rushing scores in as many weeks, Betts has quickly taken the team lead in rushing touchdowns.

"It doesn't surprise me," quarterback Jason Campbell said of Betts's contribution. "Because that's the type of attitude he has and that's the type of player he is."

Betts has shown before he's a reliable backup for Portis. When the Redskins' star running back was placed on season-ending injured reserve in 2006, Betts strung together 100-yard games in five straight games. In the sixth game -- the season finale -- he managed 92 yards.

Betts has made 12 career starts and has managed 100-yard games in seven of them.

"I mean, in this league, superstars have opportunities," teammate Lorenzo Alexander said. "And he's the type of guy, when he gets an opportunity, he's gonna make superstar plays."

Replacing Portis mid-game a week earlier, Betts had 70 yards on 15 carries in Atlanta but suffered a sprained ankle in the process. Early last week, he felt his status for Sunday looked "bleak." He missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday, and on Friday Betts said he felt about 75 percent healthy. Once Sunday's game started, though, he wasn't feeling much pain.

"It's something I told the coaches, as well, 'I'll be fine. Once my adrenaline gets kicked in, the crowd gets roaring, I'll be fine,' " Betts said.

While players around the locker room sang Betts's praises, the running back credited his line, an embattled group that turned in its best performance of the season.

"I can't talk about them enough," Betts said. "They did a great job. It has nothing to do with me or with Rock" Cartwright, who added 41 yards on nine carries.

It wasn't an easy week for the line. Mike Williams suffered ligament damage in his ankle against the Falcons and the team opted to make three lineup changes for Denver: shifting Stephon Heyer to right tackle, replacing Will Montgomery with little-used Chad Rinehart at right guard and inserting recently signed Levi Jones into the rotation, marking his first start in a year.

While the patchwork unit searched for a rhythm, mistakes were made in practice and offensive line coach Joe Bugel wasn't shy about expressing himself. When Heyer saw him after the game, Bugel was like a changed man.

"You could see the stress lift off his face a little bit," Heyer said. "You know, you look at the week and he's been battling with the fact that we've been trying to mesh and come together, it's been hard. So I think he had a little relief today."

Jones said the week leading up to Sunday's game "wasn't all peachy and rosy in there."

"Not one of us as an offensive line liked what's going on. We knew we needed to work hard to get it done and get it taken care of," he said. "We got to get it fixed. I'm not saying it's all the way fixed now, but we definitely took a step in the right direction."

Zorn had said on Friday that Portis was still feeling the effects from last week's concussion. He'll likely clarify Portis's health status for next weekend's game at Dallas on Monday. If Portis isn't ready, Betts likely will be.

A second-round draft pick in 2002, he's been the Redskins' top backup since they acquired Portis in 2004. Until Sunday's game, he hadn't started since Portis was injured in 2006. In December of that season, Betts signed a five-year contract, forgoing an opportunity to test the field in free agency.

"From my understanding from my conversations with the coach and everybody else within the organization, my role will be a large role going here forward," he said at the time.

But Portis was healthy the next year and Betts had more than 10 carries just once that season -- in Week 1. He didn't have a chance to showcase himself as the team's featured back again until Sunday. Following the win over the Broncos, Betts said he didn't regret the decision to re-sign with Washington.

"It's all about coaches believing in you," he said. "Sometimes when you don't get to play, it feels like they don't believe in you. But when you get an opportunity, you get a chance to prove people wrong, and I think that's what we had a chance to do today."

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