After two games, Washington Redskins running game has ground to a halt

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 20, 2010; 11:35 PM

In his final year with the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan's team had just one game with fewer than 90 rushing yards. In the first two games of his run as Redskins head coach, his new team already has managed two.

While Washington's offense came to life in a Week 2 loss to the Houston Texans, tallying 421 total yards and scoring three touchdowns, the team's running game - a hallmark of Shanahan's most successful teams - has struggled mightily. Washington managed 18 yards on 17 carries, a 1.1 yard-per-carry average, against the Texans.

"Just something we have to keep on working on," Shanahan said Monday. "It doesn't happen overnight."

Since arriving in town, Shanahan has stressed the importance of the team's commitment to running the ball, but the Redskins' play-calling in the first two games has rarely reflected it. The Redskins had 40 rushing attempts in their first two games, compared with 70 passes.

The disparity was never more apparent than in the second half of Sunday's game. The Redskins led by 17 points at one point, but called only seven rushing plays after halftime. With the clock winding down and the game on the line, the team all but ignored the run on the final three offensive possessions. Of the Redskins' final 14 plays, 13 were passes.

"The running game wasn't there, but it didn't have to be," said Shanahan. "Any time we're averaging 7.5 yards per play and you don't turn the football over, usually you should find a way to win the football game."

Over Shanahan's 14 seasons as a head coach in Denver, running the ball was the simplest way for his teams to win, though there was a shift in the Broncos' offensive balance late in Shanahan's tenure. In his final four years as the Broncos' coach, the number of rushing attempts decreased each season, while the number of passing attempts steadily increased.

In 2005, the Broncos ran the ball an average of 33.9 times a game and passed 29.1. By 2008, his final year in Denver, Shanahan had Jay Cutler at quarterback and his team averaged only 24.2 rushing attempts (28th in the league) and 38.8 pass attempts (third in the NFL).

Looking to understand this Washington team's offensive philosophy, it might not be fair to compare these Redskins to past Shanahan teams. At least not Mike Shanahan's.

"It's really Kyle's offense," running back Larry Johnson said of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Mike Shanahan's son. "Kyle is running the offense the way he sees fit. Obviously he was with the Texans and they were very successful. I think Kyle is given the green light to call most of these plays. The system works."

Kyle Shanahan called the plays last season in Houston and the Texans' game plan consistently relied on the passing game. The Texans were tied for third in the league in pass attempts, averaging 37.1 per game and were 20th in rushing attempts, at 26.6 per outing. The Texans had the league's top-ranked passing attack, but only two teams managed less than their 3.5 yards per carry average.

Through Sunday's games, only San Francisco averaged fewer than the Redskins' 2.7 yards per carry. Despite the dismal numbers, Shanahan said he has noticed progress.

"I like the direction we're headed," he said. "We had some great effort during the game."

Considered to be an aggressive play-caller, Kyle Shanahan sent in some plays Sunday that apparently had to be changed at the line of scrimmage.

"Sometimes if they're overloading the box or giving you looks that the runs might not do so well against, hey, check it and let's throw it. Donovan spent the day doing that," guard Artis Hicks said Sunday night. "There's a little frustration by the guys up front that we didn't have a good day on the ground, but hey, Houston had a good strategy."

The team's zone-blocking scheme is supposed to afford a runner like Clinton Portis the ability to cut back and shoot through holes. Portis has 96 yards on 31 carries - an average of 3.1 yards per carry.

But no one is pointing fingers at anyone around Redskins Park.

"It's not 100 percent anybody's fault," said Johnson, who has two yards on five attempts so far. "We all share responsibility to why the running game isn't where it [should be]."

Players say they believe in the system and feel it's going to get better. The Redskins, though, are still shuffling some pieces and trying to find the best combination of players. On the line, Kory Lichtensteiger has been rotating with Derrick Dockery at left guard and Stephon Heyer has been relieving Jammal Brown at right tackle. If Trent Williams's knee isn't healthy enough, either Heyer or Brown might have to play left tackle Sunday against St. Louis.

In the backfield, Portis is clearly the top back. Johnson, though, was removed from the Houston game after a 10-yard loss at the start of the fourth quarter. Keiland Williams, an undrafted rookie, played the next two downs and later returned to the backfield for the Redskins' final drive of regulation and an appearance in overtime.

Johnson said Monday that he's still getting used to his reserve role. "This is all new to me," he said.

Shanahan acknowledges that it's tricky for a second-string tailback to find a rhythm when he's inserted mid-game. But the problems with the running game run deeper than the depth chart.

While execution has been an issue in the team's first two games, the play-calling reveals a design distinctly different from some of Shanahan's best teams. The coming weeks will show the team's true level of commitment to running the football.

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