- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

HOUSTON — Forget that it’s only late September and, win or lose yesterday, 13 games remained for the Washington Redskins.

In a conference like the NFC and a division like the NFC East, 0-3 means oh no. And late Saturday night at the team hotel, coach Joe Gibbs successfully made his point.

“He said it was time,” longtime lieutenant Joe Bugel said. “The football season is much shorter than a baseball season, and our guys knew it. They got the message from Joe.”

A few hours later, the Redskins showed that they understood with a thorough 31-15 victory over the lowly Houston Texans at Reliant Stadium. The win started the season-saving portion of the Redskins’ schedule and was their first of any kind in six months and 17 days.

“It’s been a long haul for us — six weeks without anything to cheer about,” Gibbs said. “It would have been easy for the players to get down during this period, but I don’t think they did.”

Quarterback Mark Brunell, so ineffective against Minnesota and Dallas, was 24-for-27 for 261 yards and one touchdown, and his 22 consecutive completions to start the game set an NFL record. Running back Clinton Portis returned after a one-game absence to rush for 86 yards and two touchdowns.

The Redskins (1-2) are halfway out of the hole they dug for themselves with stinkeroo losses to Minnesota and Dallas. And though back-slapping and laughter returned to the locker room, there also was the realization that plenty of work remains.

“We’ve fought ourselves out of tough situations before, and by no means are we out of this one,” right tackle Jon Jansen said. “But this is a step in the right direction. Next week we have to take another step.”

That next step will require many of the components the Redskins used against the Texans, who fell to 0-3 with the losses coming by a combined 52 points.

The Redskins’ 495 yards of offense were the most since Gibbs returned in 2004, and they also solved third-down issues on offense (9-for-13) and defense (3-for-7).

“There are a lot of things we can do better, but I’m going to focus on the things we did well,” Gibbs said.

A sampling of the positives:

• An accurate, albeit short-range, passing game. Associate head coach-offense Al Saunders tailored the game plan to include things that make Brunell feel comfortable: short drops and quick, high-percentage throws. The result was a 22-for-22 start that broke Rich Gannon’s record of 21 straight for Oakland against Denver in November 2002.

“Hopefully, we can keep this going, and it will launch us into next week,” said Brunell, referring to the matchup against his former team, Jacksonville. “But we understand we have a lot of tough games coming up.”

• Plenty of Portis. Limited to 10 carries against Minnesota and on the sideline against Dallas, Portis had touchdown runs of 30 and 1 yards, and his 74-yard reception on a shovel pass helped set up the Redskins’ first touchdown.

“No team wants to start 0-3,” Portis said. “We needed this.”

• A consistent defensive performance. The maligned group, playing without cornerback Shawn Springs (groin) and defensive tackle Joe Salave’a (calf), forced two turnovers and allowed only 61 rushing yards.

“To get on a roll, we had to get a win first. It didn’t matter who it came against,” defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. “We had some hard losses, but we continued to play with passion, and that showed today.”

Things didn’t start out rosily for the Redskins, though.

Following a three-and-out by the offense, the Redskins fell behind when Houston cruised 66 yards on just four plays to lead 7-0 less than four minutes into the game. Quarterback David Carr hit Andre Johnson for 53 yards and, on the next play, Mark Bruener for a 2-yard touchdown.

The Redskins have allowed opening-drive scores in each of their three games. The difference this week, though, was that instead of continuing to be pushed around, the Redskins pushed back.

“We came back in the next several series and brought our right and left jabs and threw a couple haymakers,” assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said.

Following the Texans’ touchdown, the Redskins scored the next 31 points as Houston’s offense was limited to four punts and a fumble in its next five possessions.

The Redskins’ offense moved down the field without the benefit of the over-the-top pass, a sign that Saunders has had to tailor some of his aerial circus visions to Brunell’s 36-year-old skills. And he also got Portis instantly involved with nine first-quarter touches.

“There are two things you have to do as a play-caller — get your quarterback and running back into a rhythm and a groove early,” Saunders said.

Both players got into a groove on the Redskins’ second possession. Facing a third-and-6 at their own 13, Brunell’s shovel pass to Portis netted 74 yards — the longest offensive play of the season. Two plays later, Ladell Betts’ 9-yard touchdown run tied the score. It was the offense’s first touchdown in 20 possessions.

On the shovel play, Saunders took advantage of the Texans’ overeager defensive ends who rushed up the field and left plenty of open space in the middle.

“Mark was stellar on that play because it’s tough to hold on to the ball when a rusher is coming up the field right at you and you know you have to wait,” Saunders said.

As Brunell’s completion streak accumulated — 4-for-4 in the first quarter, 10-for-10 in the second, 8-for-8 in the third — so did the Redskins’ lead.

On the first play of the second quarter, Brunell’s swing pass to Antwaan Randle El went for a 23-yard touchdown. Late in the quarter, the Redskins inserted the dagger — a 10-play, 82-yard drive. At the Texans 30 with nine seconds left, Gibbs was hoping to get a few extra yards before calling a timeout and sending on the field goal unit. Instead, he sent the extra point team on after Portis — with a good block from center Casey Rabach — burst up the middle and dodged two defensive backs for a 21-7 halftime lead.

Portis added his second touchdown in the third quarter, and John Hall kicked a 46-yard field goal early in the fourth.

For at least one game, Saunders’ offense — call it Al Lite because of the short passes — clicked the way fans had been hoping. Now it’s time to see whether Brunell can sustain his performance.

“When we watch the video, we’ll see we made a lot of good plays but also some areas we need to shore up,” Saunders said. “But it’s nice to feel like you moved the ball down the field and gave guys opportunities to make plays.”

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