Midway through an eight-yard surge Sunday afternoon, Chicago Bears safeties Mike Green and Todd Johnson hopped onto Clinton Portis's back. The compact runner was undeterred by this sudden inconvenience, however, kept his legs churning and, finally, fell to the ground at the two-minute warning of the Washington Redskins' 13-10 victory over the Chicago Bears.
As Portis climbed to his feet, his 36-carry, 171-yard game nearly complete, the Redskins tailback raised his arm, flexed his biceps and pointed to the protruding muscle in a hard-earned display of celebration.
The punishing ground attack that was supposed to define the Redskins under Coach Joe Gibbs flourished for the first time Sunday as Washington ran for 218 yards to overcome the continued foibles of the passing game, complement another superb effort from the defense and snap a four-game losing slide. Portis and his backup, Ladell Betts, routinely ripped off hefty gains, quelling a sellout crowd at Soldier Field. The win brought the Redskins' record to 2-4 heading into their bye week.
"We came out with the mind frame that we're a pounding team," Portis said. "We want to pound the ball."
Portis entered the contest without a 100-yard day in his last four games, but topped that total in the first half alone, when he piled up 103 yards on 21 carries. Portis had taken a handoff for 10 or more yards -- the speedy back's forte -- only six times this season, but he did so six times Sunday, keeping the offense afloat while quarterback Mark Brunell completed just eight of 22 passes for 95 yards and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. The interception return kept the game close despite Washington's statistical domination, as Chicago accrued just 160 yards of total offense.
The revamped running game helped provide Gibbs with an important victory and renewed faith in the Redskins' locker room in the team's offensive game plan after a month filled with four losses and repeated turnovers, penalties and miscues.
"Our guys today, they just kept fighting," Gibbs said. "I was really proud of them. I told them we've been through a lot in six weeks and today was really extremely hard fought."
While the victory was not cemented until rookie safety's Sean Taylor's first NFL interception in the dying seconds, it was quickly apparent that the Redskins were running the ball effectively, while the Bears' offense was stumbling again behind career backup quarterback Jonathan Quinn. He finished the day 10 of 22 for 65 yards.
Chicago trailed 10-0 before cornerback Jerry Azumah caught Brunell's deflected pass and sprinted 70 yards for a touchdown late in the first half. It was the kind of play that has haunted the Redskins, and was the fourth return of a Redskins turnover for a touchdown this season.
"The first thing that popped in my mind," wide receiver Laveranues Coles said, "was, 'How can this happen to us week after week?' " But unlike in games past, Washington did not falter after the setback; Portis sustained the team's momentum with his rushes and the Redskins' defense yielded just a second-half field goal.
"They don't score, they don't win," linebacker Marcus Washington said.
Ola Kimrin, who was contacted in his native Sweden late last week and signed to replace injured John Hall, kicked a 41-yard field goal to open the scoring, and the Redskins went ahead 10-0 a minute into the second quarter. Brunell found Coles for a 21-yard gain on third and one on that drive, Portis plowed ahead for 19 yards to the Bears 19-yard line and wide receiver Rod Gardner was left uncovered on a crossing route for an 18-yard touchdown reception.
Washington put the game away early in the fourth quarter. The offensive line shoved the defense to the left on first down from the Redskins 20 in the final minute of the third, Portis showed good patience by waiting for a hole to open behind right tackle Ray Brown and then cut back to the right for 22 yards. Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher dragged Portis down by his face mask, tacking 15 more yards onto the play. Four plays later Portis took a pitch to the left for 17 yards and soon after Kimrin, making his NFL debut, kicked his second field goal of the game to give Washington a 13-7 lead.
Almost everything the Redskins accomplished Sunday was set up by the run. They took charge in the first quarter, when Portis ran 11 times for 62 yards, including gains of 12, 13 and 19 yards. "We needed those big chunks," Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense, said. "We needed to get [Portis] over 100 today."
After weeks of turmoil, with the offensive line slumping and Portis asserting after a loss to Cleveland on Oct. 3 that the Browns' linebackers were predicting Washington's plays, the Bears suddenly had to respect the Redskins' running game. This was what Gibbs envisioned when he traded Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey to Denver to get Portis.
The coaches this past week made some adjustments to the team's running plays to help the swift but smaller runner -- Portis is 5 feet 11, 207 pounds -- after he had netted a total of 111 yards on 45 carries over the previous two games. "Our idea was to give [the Bears] every possible formation," Bugel said. "We spread them out and had a lot of success with that."
Opposing defenses had been stacking eight or more players at the line of scrimmage to thwart Portis, while the Redskins were using extra tight ends and H-backs to help protect Brunell. It created lots of congestion around the line of scrimmage when Portis was handed the ball.
On Sunday, the Redskins frequently ran the ball out of passing sets with three or more receivers. The Bears had to bring in extra defensive backs to cover the additional receivers or shift linebackers wide in coverage, and rather than have to elude a linebacker and a lineman, Portis was able to find abundant running room to the outside, where he is most dangerous.
"This was easier," said Portis, who spoke to the media Sunday after a two-week boycott, "because I only had to make one man miss instead of having to make two or three people miss in the backfield."
Hulking H-back Mike Sellers (6-3, 278 pounds) was lined up as a wide receiver several times to further confound the defense on what turned out to be running plays. "When I'm in the backfield they know it's a run," Sellers said. "When I'm split out wide, they think, 'What the heck are they going to do now?' " Sellers also acted routinely as a fullback for Portis for the first time, helping to spring him on two key inside runs.
Gibbs called many more pitch plays than usual, which are geared to get Portis outside, and Bugel installed blocking schemes that called for lower blocks at the line, or cut blocks, designed for cutback runs like those employed by the Broncos when Portis ran for them. All of it culminated in Portis compiling the most yards rushing by any Redskins runner since 1999, when Stephen Davis ran for 183.
"I saw a different Clinton Portis on the sidelines," said Bugel, who flaunted his 1983 Super Bowl ring at practices leading up to the game to motivate the players. "He came up to me and said, 'Keep running that ball, keep running that ball. I don't care if I step on my tongue at the end of the day, keep running the ball.' He was really into it."