- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

DETROIT — With 50 percent of their season now in the books, the Washington Redskins finally know what it’s going to take to win football games.

Owners of one of the NFL’s least-productive offenses, the Redskins at long last realize their only true path to success is through dominating defense and crisp special teams play.

It may not be easy on the eyes, but if executed precisely, it can result in victory. And for a Redskins squad that understands how precious these things are, games like yesterday’s 17-10 road win over the Detroit Lions — no matter how unsightly to the masses — are like fine works of art.

“Every win ain’t going to be pretty,” cornerback Fred Smoot said. “Point blank, we’re not a pretty-win type team. We’re not going to blow anybody out 40-0. We’re going to come in and we’re going to grind you.”

Washington ground the Lions into cornmeal yesterday, using a stifling performance on defense and a string of huge plays on special teams to offset another dreary offensive showing. In the end, it was good enough to topple a struggling Detroit team and reach the halfway point of the season with a 3-5 record.

“The thing I am proudest about is that we have a bunch of guys fighting hard every week,” said coach Joe Gibbs, whose team still hasn’t scored more than 18 points in a game yet has won two of its last three. “Every game we’ve played has been a close game. I was proud of our guys to go on the road and fight our guts out.”

It took every last ounce of guts from Gibbs’ troops to overcome their offensive inadequacies. Held to less than 100 passing yards for the third time in four games, the Redskins still managed to pull out a victory.

They did it behind their top-ranked defense, which held the Lions (4-4) to 64 rushing yards and harassed quarterback Joey Harrington from the game’s first play.

They did it behind a special teams unit that produced the club’s first blocked punt-turned-touchdown in 22 years and thrice downed punts inside the Lions’ 5.

And they did it behind a spectacular effort from running back Clinton Portis, who used his legs to total 147 yards on 34 carries but used his arm to produce the game’s biggest play — a 15-yard halfback pass to Laveranues Coles for Washington’s lone offensive touchdown.

“It reminded me a little of Joe Montana to Dwight Clark back in the ‘80s,” Portis said almost with a straight face, comparing his first-career touchdown pass to one of the greatest plays in NFL history.

Neither the Redskins nor the Lions bore any resemblance to the old 49ers during a painful first half. The game’s first seven possessions resulted in punts before Washington finally broke through.

The Redskins nearly blew their first chance, though. Facing fourth-and-goal at the 1, Mark Brunell’s touchdown pass to tight end Robert Royal was called back when right tackle Ray Brown was flagged for a false start. Pushed back to the 6, Gibbs sent out kicker Ola Kimrin to nail a 24-yard field goal and assume a 3-0 lead.

The Redskins were primed to take that lead into the locker room at the half, but inexplicably chose not to run out the clock and handed the ball back to the Lions. Buoyed by a pair of bone-head penalties — a taunting call on Smoot and linebacker Marcus Washington, followed by a late hit by linebacker Antonio Pierce — Detroit suddenly sprang to life and marched 75 yards in 40 seconds to set up Jason Hanson’s game-tying field goal.

Perhaps miffed at themselves for letting the Lions back into the game, the Redskins came out firing in the third quarter. Portis, who has struggled to produce big plays all year, ran for 21 yards on consecutive plays to set up his touchdown pass.

Never shy about his talents, Portis has been pleading with Gibbs all season to let him throw a pass. On second-and-9 at the 15 yesterday, the coach finally gave in.

“I think he gets a real kick out of that,” Gibbs said. “He told me a long time ago he can throw the ball. And from where I was standing, it [looked like] a pretty good throw.”

Portis’ 15-yard rainbow to Coles in the corner of the end zone — Coles’ first touchdown catch of the year — gave the Redskins a 10-3 lead and put the game in the hands of their defense.

Gregg Williams’ unit responded with a flurry of big plays that left the crowd of 62,657 booing the Lions unmercifully.

“Whatever we’ve got to do to win,” Washington said. “‘Hit, hit, never quit’ — that’s our motto. If we play like that, it’s kind of hard to lose.”

It’s also hard to lose when your special teams unit comes through with its play of the year: Taylor Jacobs’ block of Nick Harris’ third-quarter punt, and Walt Harris’ subsequent 13-yard touchdown return.

“We’ve been taking shots in there all the way through the regular season. We finally got one,” said Gibbs of the Redskins’ first blocked punt-turned-touchdown since Sept.19, 1982 (the coach’s second year at the helm). “It really came at a good time for us.”

Up 17-3, the Redskins appeared to have the game in hand. The defense, though, finally wilted down the stretch, surrendering a 66-yard drive capped by Harrington’s 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Cory Schlesinger with 2:08 to play.

The Lions had one last chance to tie the game when they took over at their 2 with 1:36 left. Harrington, though, ran out of time and could only watch helplessly as Washington came through with one last defensive stand.

“It was a combined effort,” said Brunell, who finished six of 17 for 58 yards. “It was not pretty, but it was effective.”

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