- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When Clinton Portis, one of the NFL’s most-used running backs, emerged from the Pittsburgh game three weeks ago with knee and leg injuries in addition to general body soreness, Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn said spelling him would be a “community” effort.

Who knew that project would include Mike Sellers?

Through nine weeks, Zorn showed no inclination of using Sellers as a short-yardage runner or outlet receiver - one carry and two catches while averaging 24 snaps a game - despite his 47 receptions the past three years.

But the past two weeks, whether it’s a product of Portis’ health or the coaching staff being more open about using Sellers, Zorn has begun to utilize the 280-pounder’s rare skill set. And it has paid immediate dividends.

In Sunday’s win at Seattle, Sellers played a season-high 50 snaps (an unofficial statistic that doesn’t include plays nullified by penalty) and had five offensive touches: one carry and four receptions. Against Dallas the Sunday before, he caught two early passes.

Sellers has third-down catches of 13 and 12 yards the past two games, a welcome bonus for a player whose primary job is putting his head down and running into the chests and helmets of charging linebackers and safeties.

“He’s obviously got a thankless job,” center Casey Rabach said. “Anytime you give him that crumb, he definitely appreciates it. We’ve seen what Mike can do in the past with the ball in his hands. For as big as he is, he’s a tremendous athlete to throw it to or hand it to.”

Said Zorn: “It was wonderful that Mike had so much success [Sunday] doing different things.”

The first nine games for Sellers were about blocking - period. Portis was the league’s most valuable offensive player during the first half, and Zorn didn’t want to take away a single opportunity from him. But when Portis got dinged, Sellers was the beneficiary, and he showed his versatility against Seattle.

cFullback: 36 snaps. His most common target in blocking was Seahawks linebacker Julian Peterson.

cSingle back, I formation: eight snaps. He was often the Redskins’ only back in third-and-long situations.

cSplit-back formation: two snaps. He cut-block Baraka Atkins to help Jason Campbell gain 4 yards on a quarterback keeper.

cSlot receiver: two snaps. When Campbell threw quick to Santana Moss, Sellers sprinted left to wipe out cornerback Kelly Jennings. Moss gained 24 yards.

cKneel-down formation: two snaps.

The newest addition is using Sellers in a single-back formation. This is a byproduct of Portis’ health. A premiere pass protector, Portis gives no quarter when taking on bigger opponents, but the Redskins appear to use third-down passing situations as a way to give him a rest.

On the Redskins’ first three third-down chances at Seattle, Sellers lined up in the I formation: He chipped a linebacker, caught a 12-yard screen pass for a first down and helped Chris Samuels block Darryl Tapp.

Zorn called the screen without realizing Sellers was on the field.

“All of a sudden, I called it, and everybody’s going, ‘Oh no! Mike’s in there!’” he said. “It was really vintage to what we used to do with Mack Strong [in Seattle]. He was our third-down back, and you would think, ‘Oh no, we’re throwing the ball to Mack!’ Absolutely, we are.”

Sellers’ chance for his second touchdown came in the second half, but he let Campbell’s throw - which was a little high - fall incomplete.

“Should he have caught it? Absolutely,” Zorn said. “But Jason made it very difficult for him. … When quarterbacks throw to running backs and tight ends, you have to keep the ball in the core - don’t get the ball so above his head [that] he has to extend his arms. That’s tough because they don’t get to catch a lot of balls like that. You try to throw it at his face or shoulders.”

Despite the recent activity with the football in his hands, Sellers’ primary job remains being Portis’ lead blocker - and few do it better.

Two plays stood out Sunday. On the Redskins’ third drive, Sellers started in a three-point stance, and after the delayed handoff to Portis, he hammered linebacker LeRoy Hill and Portis gained 9 yards. During one of Portis’ 20-yard gains, a play around the left side, he hung on to the back of Sellers’ jersey as the big guy plowed into safety Brian Russell.

With Sellers helping five experienced run blockers up front, the Redskins rank third in rushing yards a game (143.7) and yards a carry (4.6).

“It’s like having six offensive linemen out there,” Rabach said. “As big and physical as he is, to have him in there and do what he does, that’s when we’re operating at our best.”

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