- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

Everything seems to be slowing down in the Washington Redskins’ running game. And that’s a good thing.

By being more patient over the past three games, running back Clinton Portis is playing his best football of the season. He has averaged 4.5 yards a carry since the Oct.[ThSp]17 win at Chicago, and his 810 yards at the season’s midpoint put him on pace to shatter Stephen Davis’ club record (1,432 in 2001).

The secret is that Portis is doing a better job of letting holes develop rather than surging ahead at the first sign of daylight. The tactic is a key to succeeding in coach Joe Gibbs’ scheme, which zone-blocks and often pulls guards and tackles to open runs into the secondary and beyond.

“A back that just wants to hit it and run right now, he’s going to get tackled pretty fast,” right tackle Ray Brown said yesterday. “If he sort of waits it out and lets it develop we can get him to the secondary. That’s key. And I think that’s why Clinton has been able to break off some long runs.”

Tomorrow’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals, who own the league’s worst run defense, is likely to turn on the play of Portis. Washington quarterback Mark Brunell hasn’t completed a pass of more than 23 yards since Oct. 3, and the Bengals likely will focus on stuffing Portis.

Portis wasn’t available for comment yesterday, but following last weekend’s 17-10 win at Detroit, he credited his 34-carry, 147-yard performance to patiently reading what was happening in front of him. Portis finished with five runs of between 12 and 21 yards.

“[The emphasis] was just stay on your tracks, make the right reads, don’t try to do too much and let the game come to you,” Portis said. “Week in and week out, if I stay on my tracks, that’s what can happen.”

One of the fundamental ideas of Gibbs’ scheme is zone-blocking. The way Brown described it, a double-team block on one defensive lineman pushes the defender into the linebacker, effectively blocking two players and creating a vertical seam. The trick is that the runner must be patient enough for that hole to develop.

“His patience is going to set up our blocks,” Brown said. “If he runs right now to the hole, we’re not going to get to the second level, or we’re not going to push the down guy far enough. If he’s patient, we’ll be able to take our double-team blocks to the second level, and he’ll be able to find some holes. He’s been doing that really nice the last couple of weeks.”

Another frequent tactic is pulling, or swinging guards and tackles into space. The strategy could be seen on one second-quarter play last weekend, when Portis gained 12 yards on a sweep left. Right guard Randy Thomas and left guard Derrick Dockery both vacated their interior position and went around the left edge, creating the coveted “second level” of blocks.

In essence, the second level is the difference between a 4-yard gain and a 12-yard or longer gain. By taking out a linebacker or two, the blockers allow Portis to accelerate and attack the remaining would-be tacklers. In a perfect scenario, Portis jukes a defender or spins out of a tackle and is off to the end zone.

“He was on the verge there,” Gibbs said of last weekend. “We had a chance to get a real big one twice. He didn’t quite get away on it.”

Gibbs has been thrilled with Portis since the Redskins obtained him in a trade with the Denver Broncos. But three times in four games early this season, Portis gained less than 70 yards. And in two of those contests (Oct 3 at Cleveland, Oct.10 against Baltimore), he averaged less than 3 yards a carry.

The momentum has swung back in Portis’ favor in recent weeks, seemingly because of the patience factor. But when asked about this element, Gibbs shifted the focus to Portis’ running instinct.

“Sometimes it looks like he’s being real patient,” Gibbs said. “Sometimes it’s a real burst to get someplace. What he is is a real talented guy. But I will say this: If in practice you can kind of program things, in a game is where they instinctively see a seam and go hit it. He has a real feel for when to press it and stay outside and when to [go inside].”

Cutting back inside could be an emphasis against the Bengals, who have lost defensive tackle Tony Williams and middle linebacker Nate Webster for the season. But the Redskins aren’t taking Cincinnati lightly, and they certainly aren’t counting on another 145-yard day because of the Bengals’ ranking against the run.

“We haven’t even thought about it once,” Thomas said. “It’s not even mentioned. Just by you guys. The game plan is to block your assignment. We don’t get into the [rankings]. Our overall goal is winning games. A lot of teams get into that, and they go out there and don’t know [their opponent]. We’re going to do our job the best we can and let it fall in place.”

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