Each time one of the Cleveland Browns' linebackers barked out a call to his defense, Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis grew a bit more suspicious. He would get the handoff from quarterback Mark Brunell and inevitably collide with a pile of tacklers. By the end of the ugly 17-13 defeat Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, Portis had gained just 58 yards on 20 carries and was wondering if perhaps somehow the Browns had plundered his playbook.
"They were literally calling our plays," said Portis, whose third-quarter fumble led to Cleveland's first touchdown, "and hitting the gap before us."
Portis was adamant that the Browns knew exactly what running plays were coming, anticipating which lineman the back was about to run behind and where the play was designed to end up. He said some of the Browns told him as much after the game. "How did they know? I have no idea," he said.
Whatever the reason, Washington's ground game has yet to click. Coach Joe Gibbs's offense is predicated on running effectively and Portis, who was acquired for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey in the offseason for precisely that reason, has gained 100 yards only once and is averaging just 3.35 yards per carry since tearing 64 yards for a touchdown on his first play with the Redskins.
"The defensive guy is out there calling out the play," Portis said. "It's like you run into a brick wall. It's like you're telling me, 'Let's meet right here.' [But] I take the blame for this game and I take the blame for the Giants game [gaining 69 yards in a Week 2 loss]. I've been stinking it up and I've got to play better."
Portis ran six times for 30 yards in the first quarter, scored his second touchdown of the season in the second quarter and seemed as if he might be on his way to a big day, but the offensive line could not open gaps consistently. Some of Gibbs's most famous running plays, like the counter-trey, went for no yards and Portis repeatedly was trapped in the backfield. His speed should have helped him gain a few yards on the outside, but even then the Browns had a linebacker committed and kept Portis from gaining a few crucial first downs.
With the passing game struggling as well, opponents are stacking additional defenders near the line of scrimmage.
"Every time we run the ball there's eight or nine people in the box," tight end Walter Rasby said. "It's just a simple fact of physics. They've got more numbers than we've got."
The offensive line contributed to false-start and offsides penalties -- which plagued them last season -- and has yet to put together two strong performances. Against the Browns, the line suffered another injury when starting right tackle Ray Brown left in the second half with a hamstring injury. Brown, however, said he believes he will be able to play next Sunday against Baltimore. Overall, Washington ran 25 times for 73 yards against the Browns and Portis and backup Ladell Betts failed to gain more than 10 yards on a carry.
"We're not consistent in there," Gibbs said. "Two drives we're out on the first three [plays] and we have penalties, which put us in bad situations where you can't keep running the football. I think our guys want to run it and we've got to get to the point where we can run it."
Portis watched the final series of the first half from the sideline, with Betts getting called upon, and he has not carried the ball more than 23 times in a game since getting 29 rushes in the Week 1 win over Tampa Bay. "I don't know if they're losing confidence in me or not, but in that package Betts was the guy that they called on," Portis said. "And when he was in, I'm behind him all the way."
The running backs and offensive line have yet to find any chemistry. Stalwart right tackle Jon Jansen was lost for the season in the first preseason game, with Brown, 41, and journeyman Kenyatta Jones filling in. This was the first time all season that the Redskins started the same offensive line in consecutive games, but the cohesiveness still suffered; tackle Chris Samuels was called for a false start on the first offensive play of the game and the trend continued throughout the afternoon.
"I can't do that," Samuels said. "I'm a professional and I've got to do a better job. I can't point the finger at anybody but myself. I'm the one who got the penalty. . . . We've got to find a way to get it fixed. I tell you, we've got a star running back and a good offensive line up front. We've got to do a better job opening up running lanes for him and getting him out in the secondary."