- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

Every variable should have told the Philadelphia Eagles a running play was coming during the third quarter of last week’s game against the Washington Redskins.

The Redskins had a first down at the Eagles’ 49. They had run on 13 of their initial 19 first downs.

Mike Sellers was in at fullback. Rarely does Sellers line up in the backfield on non-run plays.

Backup tight end Todd Yoder was on the field, next to left tackle Chris Samuels, albeit not in a three-point stance. Yoder’s role is to block, period.

And the Redskins were leading 10-6. Joe Gibbs Offensive Protocol demanded a running play.

The Eagles knew all of that, and it didn’t matter.

As soon as Clinton Portis got the handoff, a hole developed: Left guard Pete Kendall neutralized Broderick Bunkley, Samuels pushed Trent Cole outside, Yoder won his battle with Chris Gocong and, 5 yards downfield, Chris Cooley sealed out Sean Considine.

Seven plays later, the Redskins extended their lead to 13-6 and eventually won 20-12 thanks in part to a running game that gained 130 yards on 33 attempts.

Combined with their 41 rushes for 191 yards in a Week 1 win over the Miami Dolphins, that effort showed that the Redskins’ preseason rushing struggles haven’t carried over, that the strong end to last season in the run game has carried over and that the weekly tumult on the offensive line hasn’t changed associate head coach Al Saunders‘ plan of run often to take the pressure off quarterback Jason Campbell.

The Redskins (2-0) enter today’s game against the New York Giants (0-2) ranked fourth in the league with 160.5 yards rushing a game. Only the Tennessee Titans (83) and Pittsburgh Steelers (75) have more attempts than the Redskins’ 74, which is nearly 19 carries more than the NFL average.

“They’re doing the things that I think they want to do,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “They have the two outstanding runners who can come in one right after the other. Everybody benefits from their outstanding running game, without a doubt.”

Expect more of the same today even though the Giants rank last in pass defense and right tackle Todd Wade and right guard Jason Fabini will be starting their first game together for the Redskins.

The Redskins, unlike, say, the Eagles or New England Patriots, don’t pass to set up the run. Their plan likely will remain the same: Get Portis and Ladell Betts going in the run game to set up Campbell throwing to Cooley and Santana Moss off play action.

Not that the Redskins are content or anything.

“Our running game still has a ways to go,” Saunders said. “We’re not at the level we plan on being at. We’ve had some instances where we could be more productive, but that’s the nature of the entire team at this point. … We’ve had a piecemeal situation with the offensive line since training camp. It’s a work in progress. We’re happy with the results at this point but know we have to be better.”

Said Gibbs: “I don’t think you’re ever totally pleased with things. With what’s happening on the offensive line, we’ve kept a really good approach to things and got after it.”

Preseason concerns

The Redskins averaged 2.8 yards a carry in the preseason. Portis and Samuels didn’t play at all, and Betts was limited to 14 carries.

Some players weren’t worried.

“We’ve always been able to run the ball and we showed that last year,” Betts said. “Some people jumped to conclusions in the preseason, but we didn’t have all our starters in there. I wasn’t too worried about it.”

Other players expressed concern.

“I had some questions,” center Casey Rabach said. “I wasn’t 100 percent confident. We did some really good things at the end of last season, and that’s where everybody wanted to pick up. To do what we’ve done against Miami and Philadelphia is a confidence builder.”

Against Miami, Portis gained 11 yards on the first two offensive snaps and the Redskins were off and running.

Samuels has returned to form after missing the preseason with a sprained knee. But right tackle Jon Jansen (broken leg, dislocated ankle) was lost for the season in Week 1 and right guard Randy Thomas (triceps tendon), who is used often as a pull blocker, is out until at least December.

Wade was serviceable against Philadelphia and Fabini occasionally got to the second level against the Eagles front seven. Over the final three quarters, the Redskins ran to the right side seven times, gaining 19 yards.

Saunders reiterated this week that the running game is traditionally slow to develop because of NFL rules (no contact during the offseason) and a head coach’s approach to training camp (the Redskins don’t tackle in practice). Couple that with the injury situation, and the Redskins’ rushing success early is even more impressive.

“My experience has been that as you go along in the season, you have an opportunity to get stronger in the running game,” Saunders said.

The key, besides not losing any more offensive linemen, is keeping Portis healthy. He has exceeded projections by rushing 34 times in the two games.

“As Clinton gets more football-conditioned, we’ll be more productive,” Saunders said.

31 is magic number

During Gibbs’ 15-plus seasons as Redskins coach, 31 rushes has been a key figure.

In games the Redskins have rushed fewer than 31 times, they are 22-64.

In games the Redskins have rushed at least 31 times, they are 125-23.

Since Gibbs returned to the team in 2004, the Redskins are 2-21 when they rush fewer than 31 times; 21-6 when they exceed that total.

“Everybody will tell you that turnover ratio is the No. 1 factor in winning and losing and through the course of the year, that’s probably the case,” Saunders said. “If you’re running the ball over 30 times, it probably correlates more to winning because teams leading late in the game run it more. That’s when you have control of the clock.”

For all his reputation through the years as being a passing game expert, Saunders’ philosophy is actually in line with Gibbs’ beliefs.

During Saunders’ four years calling the plays for Kansas City (2001-05), the Chiefs ran at least 31 times in 37 games (going 30-7). In 2005, the Chiefs rushed 32 or more times in 11 games.

The difference between Kansas City and Washington is the two-back system and who’s playing quarterback. With the Chiefs, Saunders had a running back who exceeded 300 carries in all but one season. With the Redskins, he has Portis and Betts.

Saunders is also focused on putting Campbell in optimum situations to use his big arm. That means running more on first down (65 percent of the time), allowing Campbell more manageable second-down chances. The Redskins’ 6.82-yard average on first down is fourth-best in the NFL.

“Anytime you have a great running game, you do everything else off of that with play action,” Campbell said. “You’re able to get into a rhythm as a quarterback and you’re able to throw the ball and spread teams out and that helps the running game become even more effective because they’re dropping back into coverage.”

And the offensive linemen are unanimous in their desire to run as much as possible.

“It’s our nature,” Rabach said. “I hate to say that you have to be passive in pass protection, but you’re passive-aggressive because you have to sit back and let the defense dictate where they’re rushing. When we’re running it, it’s up to us to dictate — we come off the line, hammer them and move them out of the way.

“And it wears on a defense. If we run the ball that many times, you take the sting out of the defense and that slows down their pass rush.”

Because of his inactivity during the preseason, it was expected that Portis might get worn down. Instead, he has simultaneously worked his way into football condition while averaging 4.9 yards a carry. And Portis predicts things will even get better.

“We’re not really clicking yet,” he said. “Everybody is coming together to find a way to win. Once we mesh and click and get on the same page, the running game will get going and then things will get exciting.”

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