The Washington Redskins, bolstered by a stingy defense, energized special teams play and the legs and throwing arm of tailback Clinton Portis, grinded out a hard-fought 17-10 victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, improving their record to 3-5 halfway through the season.
The Redskins' passing game under quarterback Mark Brunell was anemic once again. But it didn't matter as Washington scored on Portis's halfback option pass to wide receiver Laveranues Coles early in the third quarter and a blocked punt by wide receiver Taylor Jacobs six minutes later that safety Walt Harris returned 13 yards for the score.
"With our football team every game has been a fourth-quarter game, so any score in there anyway we can get it is going to really be a big deal," Gibbs said. "I think our defense is playing extremely well and so every point we get is cherished. For us to get one on special teams was great. I thought our special teams played solid all day."
Gibbs gave a game ball to wide receiver James Thrash, whose hustle on punt coverage three times pinned the Lions inside their own 5-yard line and whose 43-yard punt return in the second quarter helped set up a Redskins field goal.
Portis, meantime, gained 147 yards on 34 carries, and his 15-yard touchdown pass -- Washington's longest completion of the game -- early in the third quarter snapped a 3-3 tie, giving the Redskins a lead they did not relinquish. Portis became the first tailback this season to run for more than 100 yards against Detroit's defense.
Detroit, which entered the game with the league's lowest-ranked offense, finished with 322 yards. But the Lions were hurt by poor field position throughout the game, in large part because of excellent punt coverage by the Redskins.
"Defense played great, special team came up with a big play, we ran the ball really well," Brunell said. "It was a combined effort. It was not pretty but it was effective."
"We played as a team today for the first time," cornerback Fred Smoot said.
The Redskins face an imposing schedule in the weeks ahead. After a game at FedEx Field next Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, who beat the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3, on Sunday, the Redskins have road games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers before hosting the New York Giants and Eagles.
"The difference between 3-5 and 2-6 is huge," Brunell said of Washington's record. "Hopefully, this is the start of something."
Brunell's passes again consistently went astray on Sunday, especially when he faced pressure from Detroit's defensive line. Left defensive end James Hall constantly nipped at Brunell's heels. Brunell wasn't helped by Washington's receivers, who dropped several passes. Brunell finished with a season-low 58 yards, completing 6 of 17 passes for a 45.7 quarterback rating.
It was Portis who had the throw of the game. Less than five minutes into the second half, the Redskins had a second and nine at the Detroit 15-yard line. Brunell handed the ball to Portis for what appeared to be a running play. Portis looked comfortable in the pocket, juking to his right before unleashing a rainbow pass to Coles in the back of the end zone for the wideout's first touchdown reception this season.
"From where I was standing," Gibbs said, "it looked like a pretty good throw."
Coles, who had gone eight consecutive games without a score, was covered by safety Brock Marion, who never turned his head. After the play, which gave the Redskins a 10-3 lead with 10 minutes 31 seconds left in the quarter, Portis sprinted toward the end zone, flapping his arms, before congratulating Coles.
"I told [Coles] I needed this, for my quarterback rating," Portis said.
Leading up to the pass, Portis had opened the second half with consecutive 21-yard runs. After a slump early in the season, Portis has regained his swagger, displaying the razor-sharp cutbacks that made him one of the league's top tailbacks.
Portis had been lobbying for an option pass since the season started and Gibbs relented on Sunday. The play was set up by Portis's success on the ground.
"It was a dream of mine, it started when I was 8," Portis said of his first career NFL pass.
Gibbs said: "He swore to me that he could throw the football. After we threw it, he wanted to throw it again. He told me they wouldn't be expecting it the next time. I told him he's right, they won't expect it because we're not going to throw it."
It is when Portis runs well, however, that the Redskins have success. In the team's Week 1 victory over Tampa Bay, Portis ran for 148 yards. Two weeks ago, Portis gained 171 yards on 36 carries as the Redskins defeated the Chicago Bears, 13-10. Last week against the Green Bay Packers, he gained 70 yards on only 17 carries as the Redskins lost, 28-14.
With 4:40 left in the third quarter, the Redskins exploited a slow snap from Lions center Jody Littleton to punter Nick Harris at the Detroit 27-yard line. Jacobs, Washington's speedy wideout, sprinted from the left side to block Harris's punt just ahead of safety Todd Franz. "I got such a good jump on the ball," Jacobs said. "When the ball moved, I moved."
The Redskins' Harris pounced on the ball on the Detroit 13-yard line alongside a few teammates and trotted into the end zone to give Washington a 17-3 lead. Jacobs couldn't find the ball after the block, and was thrilled to see Harris being mobbed by teammates in the end zone.
"I was looking hard but I saw Walt go into the end zone so I said: 'My job is done.' " Jacobs said.
Harris said, "I pretty much did the easy work."
The sequence has been so rare that Jacobs was only 1 year old the last time the Redskins returned a block for a touchdown: Sept. 19, 1982, when Curtis Jordan did so against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Down by two touchdowns, Detroit turned desperate with about six minutes left in the game and went for it on fourth and 18 from the Washington 28-yard line. But Smoot leaped high for an interception on the left side of the end zone.
Lions quarterback Joey Harrington threw a one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Cory Schlesinger with just over two minutes remaining, but Redskins rookie Sean Taylor -- back in the lineup after missing a game following his drunken-driving arrest -- recovered the Lions' ensuing onside kick.
"It was too little too late," Lions Coach Steve Mariucci said.