As the Washington Redskins rolled up yards on the ground Sunday in St. Louis, dominating the line of scrimmage in a 24-9 victory, a lingering concern remained in tailback Clinton Portis's mind that the coaches would turn to the pass-oriented shotgun formation in short-yardage situations. Portis's concern was well-founded: Although Washington's offense fancies itself as a grind-it-out operation, it had often chosen not to run the ball on third and short this season.
When given the opportunity to attack the Rams in those situations Sunday, however, the offensive line, Portis and reserve running back Rock Cartwright broke the game open, sustained repeated lengthy second-half drives and, they hope, produced enough clutch runs to rekindle belief in the Redskins' run-heavy approach.
Portis and Cartwright converted all five of their third-and-one opportunities; Washington's running backs had been given the ball on third and one only five times total in the previous 11 games.
The Redskins' opponent Sunday is Arizona, whose defense ranks 26th among the league's 32 teams in yards allowed per carry, and Washington finishes the season with three games against NFC East foes. The Redskins (6-6) believe grinding out yardage will be imperative, and converting on third and short to increase time of possession will be vital if they are to make the playoffs. Sunday's dominant rushing performance has left players clamoring for a similar game plan down the stretch.
"Third down had been killing us for the last three weeks and to come out and execute and not get in the shotgun, and to actually run the ball when we got to on third and short and to come out and execute, it just builds confidence, and it's going to open up our passing game," Portis said. "We come out on third and short and we haven't been converting, but in this game, we stuck with the run all game long and it paid off: Once we got down to the goal line we stuck it in again."
Portis put Washington ahead 17-7 by going over the top of the Rams defensive line on third and goal from the 1. Earlier in the game Cartwright took a third-and- one carry 52 yards to set up the field goal that gave the Redskins a 10-7 lead.
Coach Joe Gibbs called on his running backs on the final five third-and-one situations in the game -- by far the longest such streak of the season -- and they converted all of them. In 15 prior third-and-one situations to that point, Gibbs had called five pass plays and five quarterback sneaks, to only five plays for his running backs. To that point, quarterback Mark Brunell actually had one more third-and-one attempt than Portis, the former Pro Bowl runner who was given one of the richest contracts in NFL history before the 2004 season.
Overall, Washington ran the ball 40 times against the Rams -- compared to 21 passes -- for 257 yards, by far the most since Gibbs took over last season. Portis (136 yards) and Cartwright (118 yards) combined to average seven yards per carry, and Brunell threw eight times in the second half with the Redskins dictating the tempo of the game, completing all of his attempts.
"I'd take that game over any other," Brunell said. "That was ideal for me. It was just the way you'd draw it up. We'd like to do that every game. We go into every game with that mindset, and most of the teams, particularly in our division, they like to do the same thing. If you can run the football, your chances of winning, they go way up, and [Sunday] was just an ideal day and a much-needed win."
In Portis's estimation, Gibbs "abandoned" the run with the Redskins leading Oakland in the fourth quarter three weeks ago, and that game slipped away. Gibbs did almost nothing but run against San Diego's league-best run defense in the fourth quarter the following Sunday, and Washington could not run enough time off the clock to prevent a loss in overtime. A week of meetings spent refining the short-yardage approach resulted in the Redskins attacking those situations with the running backs.
"We made a point [to run the ball more] after the Raider game and as a team we talked about what had happened there in the second half rushing the football, and I think we made a conscious effort against San Diego to rush the ball, and I think we did," Gibbs said. "We stayed after it and then we came back this week."
Running on third and short sends a message to opponents about the Redskins' strength as well as their intent. "The physical approach to it and rushing the football, the confidence -- we made a point of it," Gibbs said.
By lining up in the shotgun and limiting running options to simply the draw play, a team is conveying something as well. "You're giving [the opposing defense] confidence," said offensive lineman Ray Brown, a 20-year veteran. Several players said that if Gibbs took a vote on the sideline, a majority wanted to run the ball on fourth and one from the Rams 27 leading 7-0 at the start of the second quarter; John Hall missed a field goal instead.
"You can't question Coach Gibbs and the guys, the decisions they make, what plays they choose to run," Cartwright said. "But maybe if they see we are able to be pretty successful on short yardage now, maybe we'll get more opportunities on third and short."
Just prior to that fourth-down decision, Gibbs called for a quarterback keeper that was unsuccessful on third and one, then called for handoffs to his running backs in those situations for the duration of the game. That has Cartwright and his teammates enthused, and might be a sign of things to come. The Redskins will surely face tougher run defenses in their final four games, and might go a long time without having two 100-yard rushers again in the same game, but want to continue pounding away and curtailing turnovers.
"There's a formula to this and somehow we've tended to get away from it, and it caused us to lose six ballgames," Brown said. "But if we can maintain this next week, we've got a good chance of winning."