- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

After falling into a 13-0 halftime hole against the Detroit Lions, the Washington Redskins were back in the game after Santana Moss’ 57-yard touchdown reception to open the second half.

On their second possession of the half, the Redskins had gained 33 yards on two passes to reach their 45-yard line when coach Jim Zorn tried to get Clinton Portis involved.

First down: Portis ran right and was limited to a 4-yard gain when Chris Cooley couldn’t block Jason Hunter.

Second down: Portis tried the left side but gained only a yard when safety Marquand Manuel pursued unblocked.

Third down: In a passing situation, the Lions blitzed, and Jason Campbell threw an interception.

With the momentum gone and the running game still missing in action, the Redskins punted on their next three possessions en route to a 19-14 defeat to the Lions.

Whether it’s a byproduct of falling behind early, the inefficiency of the offensive line or Portis’ balky ankles, the Redskins’ running game has been stuck in neutral for the first three games. A team that last year averaged 130.9 rushing yards (eighth in the NFL) and 4.4 an attempt (tied for seventh) has seen its production drop to 91.7 (24th) and 4.0.

“Very surprised,” center Casey Rabach said. “But we’re capable of running the ball, and I still feel very confident we can run the ball against any defense we face. We just need to do it.”

And do it fast. The Redskins are 1-2, and their next three games come against Tampa Bay (31st against the run), Carolina (29th) and Kansas City (19th).

At the least, the preseason thinking went, the Redskins’ offensive line would be proficient in run blocking, allowing them to control possession and put Campbell in position to make plays downfield via play-action fakes.

And things started great - Portis ran through a gaping hole between left tackle Chris Samuels and left guard Derrick Dockery for a 34-yard gain on the Redskins’ first offensive play of the year. From there, the occasional chunk of yardage has been carved out, but nothing that would suggest the Redskins are getting consistent production.

Portis has 47 carries for 183 yards and no touchdowns. It’s the worst three-game start since his rookie year (27 carries for 149 yards), when he was a backup for Denver. From 2004 to 2008, Portis played in the opening three games four times - he missed Week 2 in 2006 - and averaged 62 attempts for 262 yards and 1.8 touchdowns.

If Zorn is conserving Portis for the long haul, then it might pay off as long as the Redskins don’t fall too far behind the New York Giants. If Zorn is conserving Portis because he has painful bone spurs in both ankles, the Redskins will far further into the NFC East abyss.

Portis didn’t play the last nine minutes Sunday after getting kicked in the calf. But when he has been on the field, the flash hasn’t been there - although it’s not entirely his fault.

Of Portis’ 47 attempts, 24 have gained fewer than 3 yards, including seven that have lost yardage. Against the Lions, Portis broke runs of 12 and 14 yards but also had gains of 0, minus 2, minus 3, 1, 1 and 1.

The Redskins rushed for 0 yards in the first half.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” Rabach said. “That’s embarrassing.”

Like the passing game, tempo is important in the run game, but the Redskins have found that tough to establish. They ran only nine times in the first half at New York and five times at Detroit because they never had possession - the Giants and Lions ran 40 more plays.

“Everything is about rhythm,” Rabach said. “If you have to get away from the run in a quick hurry, it makes it harder to run the ball later in the game.”

Playing catch-up in the two losses eliminated any hope of establishing the run, and losing Randy Thomas didn’t help either. New right guard Chad Rinehart held his own in his NFL debut Sunday and probably did enough to start against Tampa Bay. But time will tell whether the Redskins can use Rinehart like they did Thomas, who could get to the second level to block a linebacker and recover quickly if pushed off balance by a defensive tackle.

“I thought [Rinehart] did a nice job in the run game,” Zorn said. “It didn’t affect my playcalling at all. This will be a new week and a new team to go against, and hopefully he’ll get that much better.”

It’s up to Portis and the line to get that much better if the Redskins want to become more balanced.

“We just need to believe in ourselves when it’s called,” Rabach said. “Just go out and do the job like we have in the past.”

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