The Washington Redskins accomplished the improbable by connecting on two perfect deep passes within 71 seconds to stun Dallas with a one-point victory in Week 2 and renew confidence in the passing game. But finding the end zone via the ground surprisingly has proven to be a different matter.
The Redskins (2-0) enter practice this week still looking for the first rushing touchdown of the season, hoping it comes Sunday against Seattle at FedEx Field. The Seahawks are a likely candidate for giving up a rushing touchdown: They ranked 23rd against the run last season and allowed 17 rushing touchdowns. For Washington, the trend dates from last season, when the Redskins scored just six rushing touchdowns, tied with Cleveland for worst in the NFL and the franchise's lowest total since 1994. The Redskins have only one rushing score in their last five games dating from last season, and running back Clinton Portis has not reached the end zone in his last four starts going back to last December.
"We sure want them. We want to be a good rushing football team," Coach Joe Gibbs said during the team's bye week. "I think we've got good backs; we've got a big offensive line. We should be a good offensive rushing team. We've got to make that happen, and it sure would help us some to jump in there with some rushing touchdowns. It's something we need."
Washington dealt Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a draft pick to Denver for Portis in no small part because of his scoring prowess. Portis lived in the end zone during his two seasons with the Broncos, scoring 29 rushing touchdowns in 29 games (31 touchdowns overall). But Portis took just five carries over the goal line for the Redskins in 2004, finding himself in a seven-game rut at one point. Portis has failed to score a rushing touchdown in 11 of his last 13 games, a complete reversal from his first two seasons in the NFL.
The Redskins believe that their beefed-up offensive line and revised running scheme will result in Portis returning to that level of production, and he is averaging a much improved 4.6 yards per carry thus far. But with the offense still trying to shed its suspect status, and producing just two touchdowns through two games, the team must bully teams inside the red zone.
"I know I'm going to get there soon," Portis said last week. "It's a slow start, but like I've said, we've only put up  points in two games, and [wide receiver] Santana [Moss] is the only one who's got in the end zone so far. I know mine is coming. We've got 14 straight games, so I'm sure I'm going to find a groove somewhere along there and get in the end zone more."
Portis stood seventh in the NFL in rushing after two weeks, but has yet to go over 85 yards in consecutive games with Washington. He did so 12 times with Denver and surpassed 100 yards in consecutive games eight times.
The Redskins trailed for much of their last game and failed to run a play from the red zone, limiting Portis's effectiveness. He was held to 51 yards on 17 carries and admitted he looked for cutbacks at times when he should have plowed ahead, as all parties adjust to a hybrid running game designed to still pound between the tackles but get Portis outside as well. Portis led the way against Chicago in Week 1, however, rushing for 121 yards in a 9-7 win. (The Redskins are 6-0 when he rushes for 100 yards or more, and 1-9 when he does not.)
"Right now we're establishing our identity on offense," Portis said. "We just found out we've got an incredible deep-ball game, and the first game we found out that we can just run over people. So now we've got to combine that, and I think it's going to work out. As long as we're winning, I don't care how many yards I have."
Gibbs has been careful to spell Portis thus far after he carried the ball more than 30 times in four games last season and 29 times in another. Backup Ladell Betts has 16 rushes this season -- he did not reach that until midway through the sixth game of 2004 -- and Betts has 55 carries over his last four regular season games, a healthy total. When the Redskins do get inside the 10-yard line, Betts, a more powerful back, could get even more attempts to push through the line.
"When we get down there we definitely have to punch it in," said Betts, who scored Washington's last rushing touchdown from a yard out in last season's finale against Minnesota. "That's something we had trouble with last year, and we're trying to get that corrected."
Both Betts and Portis are making more subtle contributions, however. Running backs coach Earnest Byner has praised both for their improved knowledge of the offense and dedication in the classroom. Portis is intent on becoming a vocal team leader, while Betts, a former second-round pick, hopes to prove himself worthy of more esteem leaguewide for his overall skill (he has good ability returning kicks as well). Both have saved their quarterbacks by alertly picking up blitzing linebackers in the first two weeks, and Portis in particular is poised to become more of a factor catching balls out of the backfield.
"More than anything," Byner said, "I feel really good about the development of the players. Clinton and Ladell, the way they've taken to the academic part, but also really stepped up pass protection. And even when we couldn't really give it what we wanted in the rushing game [against Dallas], we made some plays in the passing game by blocking and by catching. I'm really proud of them."