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Making the offensive leap

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Sunday, the Washington Redskins' offense proved it could handle junior varsity competition. Mark Brunell set an NFL single-game record with 22 consecutive completions, and Clinton Portis sparked a 234-yard rushing effort against the Houston Texans.

This Sunday, they get a chance against a varsity outfit when the Jacksonville Jaguars visit FedEx Field. The Jaguars rank third in total defense and fourth against the run.

So what should be made out of the Redskins' offense after their first victory? Are they a team that discovered its mojo in Houston, or was that a result based mostly on the putrid opponent? Will the downfield passing game be discovered now that Portis has returned to full strength, or will associate head coach-offense Al Saunders have to tailor his passing game to suit Brunell's ability?

Not surprisingly, Brunell thinks the Redskins forged a groove against the Texans.

"We had some success, so not only do we get another week in this offense, we have some confidence," Brunell said. "That's big. We'll see how big on Sunday."

Through three games, the Redskins rank 12th in yards, fourth in rushing and 20th in passing. The balance that coach Joe Gibbs and Saunders covet has yet to materialize, primarily because of a lack of long pass completions.

Before the season, several factors were identified as keys for the Redskins' offense: A deep passing game, centering the offense around Portis, using tight end Chris Cooley in a way Tony Gonzalez was utilized in Kansas City and a Saunders-mandated goal of averaging 7 yards a first-down snap. Only Portis' worth and moderate first-down success (5.3 yards an attempt against the Texans) have occurred.

The Jacksonville game represents the Redskins' first chance to take a next step offensively.

"You're always looking forward because each game is so different," Saunders said. "We had the good fortune to make plays [Sunday], which we hadn't done. We were able to control the ball and run it effectively, and when you do that, everything builds on something else."

1. STRETCHING THE FIELD

What the Redskins have done: Their vision of using Santana Moss and Brandon Lloyd as dual deep threats hasn't happened. Only one of Mark Brunell's 27 passes against Houston traveled farther than 20 yards. Moss is averaging 14.5 yards a catch, and Lloyd has only three catches for 26 yards.

What the Redskins need to do: don't abandon the short passing game plan that was effective against Houston but establish -- quickly -- that Brunell is a threat to throw downfield several times a game.

Associate head coach-offense Al Saunders hopes the return of Clinton Portis makes opposing teams' safeties acknowledge the run. When Portis was limited to 10 carries against Minnesota and didn't play at Dallas, opposing defenses played two safeties downfield, confident their front seven could stop the run.

Brunell is averaging 7.06 yards a completion, 20th in the NFL.

Moss' longest reception is 23 yards, and that came on a swing pass. The Redskins' longest passing play was 74 yards to Portis, and that came on a shovel pass. The longest "true" completion is 25 yards to David Patten.

It's not exactly what the Redskins had in mind when they traded for Lloyd and signed Antwaan Randle El.

"You would hope a team would have to use an extra defender against the run, and that gives you one-on-one matchups outside," Saunders said. "When they're in an umbrella coverage, it makes it more difficult to throw downfield."

Brunell hopes Portis' return opens things up for Moss and Lloyd.

"We understand that it's important to get the ball downfield," he said. "But last week we scored early and didn't really need to as we went along."

2. USING PORTIS AS CENTERPIECE

What the Redskins have done: In his only full game, Clinton Portis carried 16 times for 86 yards and two touchdowns at Houston and also had two catches, one of which went for 74 yards and set up the Redskins' first touchdown in 20 possessions.

What the Redskins need to do: As long as Portis is healthy, they should run the offense through him. The only reason he didn't carry 20-plus times against the Texans is that the game became a rout and he was wisely benched.

Al Saunders' philosophy with running backs is to use his starter as much as possible. The four years in Kansas City that either Priest Holmes or Larry Johnson stayed healthy, one of the two had at least 313 carries. Portis averaged 347.5 carries in his first two years with the Redskins.

"When you use 2-3 guys extensively, they're only a third or half better, depending on how many guys you're using," Saunders said. "There are only so many practice reps, and consequently they don't improve at a higher level, and it's hard to get them into a rhythm, and it's hard to set things up that you want to call."

Holmes and Johnson proved they could carry the load -- the Chiefs ranked near the top of the league's rushing charts from 2001 to 2005.

In only three quarters against Houston, Portis showed how dynamic he is on a 30-yard touchdown run that required only one key block. Once at the second level, Portis did the rest, making a series of cuts that only a few backs in the NFL can make. In 26 carries this season, he's averaging 4.8 yards a carry and has three touchdowns. As Portis goes, so will the Redskins' offense.

3. CREATING FOR COOLEY

What the Redskins have done: Al Saunders envisioned tight end Chris Cooley running the same kind of routes Tony Gonzalez did the last five seasons in Kansas City, making the Pro Bowl each year. So far, Cooley has seven catches for 38 yards.

What the Redskins need to do: get Cooley involved, even if it means using Christian Fauria and Todd Yoder as the tight ends and lining up Cooley in the slot.

Nobody could cover Cooley during the Redskins' training camp practices, and he was excited from Day One about the routes -- particularly down the middle of the field -- he would be running. But those plays haven't appeared in the regular season.

Cooley's seven catches have gained 6, -9, 23, 6, 0, 9, and 3 yards. The 23-yard catch came in garbage time against Dallas. Last year, Cooley averaged 10.9 yards on 71 receptions.

Although left tackle Chris Samuels is a fan of the quick passing game that has Cooley limited to receptions in the flat with a linebacker draped over him ("We love those," Samuels said. "We get to fire off the ball really quick, and there's less chance of a sack."), Cooley's activity in the offense has been limited because of the offensive line's performance.

"We've kept Chris in to pass protect and help our tackles a little bit," Saunders said. "He's been in there probably a little more than I anticipated to balance up the protections on both sides of the line. We've had to cut back on the 4- and 5-man receiver routes."

Cooley has been the odd man out with Santana Moss, Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El serving as the three receivers.

"By the end of the season, Chris will be as productive as he's been," Saunders said.

4. WINNING ON FIRST DOWN

What the Redskins have done: The Redskins have averaged 6.2 yards on 79 first-down snaps -- third best in the NFL. But that hasn't resulted in third-down success. The offense is 15-for-40 on third down, tied for 15th.

What the Redskins need to do: Al Saunders wants to average 7 yards a first down snap. Against the Texans, the Redskins averaged 5.3 yards but had nine plays that gained more than 7 yards.

"The most important down in football is first down," Saunders said. "Everybody would say third down because if you don't convert, you have to punt, but on first-down plays, we've always put a real marquee value on what we're doing and how effective we are."

The first-down package had a new look against Houston with the return of Clinton Portis, who gives Saunders another option. The Redskins ran on their initial four first-down snaps, gaining 4, 3, 4 and 9 yards.

The success on first down widens Saunders' options on second and third down. Through three games, the Redskins have been forced to be predictable on third down -- seven runs and 33 passes. They have had 29 snaps on third down on which they had to gain more than 3 yards. They passed 27 times. In the six snaps where it's third-and-1 or 2, the Redskins have run five times.

"How effective you are on first down allows you to stay out of predictable situations," Saunders said. "As soon as you're into third-and-4 or more, you're passing 98 percent of the time. If you're into second-and-4, you're in a pretty good position to dictate tempo and the style of the game."