A long-awaited tally in the victory column wasn’t the only thing keeping coach Mike Shanahan in good spirits Monday afternoon at Redskin Park.
Shanahan, who has long preached the importance of a solid running game, was taking solace in a potential solution to his team’s quandary at the running back position.
Shanahan put his trust in rookie Roy Helu against Seattle’s eight-ranked run defense, and the decision paid off. The fourth-round pick out of Nebraska racked up 162 all-purpose yards on 30 touches in his second start. Helu’s number was called on 23 of the Redskins’ 24 rushing attempts, only resting on a 3-yard pickup by fellow rookie Evan Royster.
Helu’s gritty performance, capped by a spectacular 28-yard touchdown run that spearheaded Washington’s fourth-quarter comeback, validated Shanahan’s confidence.
“We felt Helu was playing at a very high level,” Shanahan said. “We’re going to go with the guy with the hot hand. We felt Helu was feeling good and running the ball extremely well. He made some guys miss, ran with power, came up with the big play and that’s why we kept him in.”
Up until the 9:57 mark in the fourth quarter, Helu’s play had been marked by hard-fought runs that reaped mostly short chunks of yards. That changed when he ripped off a jaw-dropping dash for the end zone that brought the Redskins’ anemic offense to life and ultimately spurred an unlikely comeback. Taking a pitch left from quarterback Rex Grossman out of the shotgun, Helu hurdled oncoming corner Roy Lewis, shrugged off a tackle from a hapless safety and skirted across the goal line to cut the Seahawks’ lead to 17-14.
For a ground attack ranked 30th, those type of runs serve as rare momentum-changers.
“[The touchdown run] was one of the most impressive runs I’ve ever seen,” Grossman said. “He hurdled somebody and kept moving. That was the play that really got us going in the fourth quarter, and we were able to win.”
The Redskins’ newfound reliance on Helu comes after Shanahan cautioned against putting too much pressure on him. Even after other solid performances, Shanahan suggested Helu wasn’t ready to be an every-down back.
Helu’s development in practice, coupled with former starter Tim Hightower’s season-ending knee injury and inconsistency from other running backs, led Shanahan to change his tune.
“You throw everything at a young player, especially with no [organized team activities in the offseason], it puts a lot of pressure on him, especially in our scheme,” Shanahan said. “We felt he was ready. He handled it during the week with very few mistakes and played well.”
Helu’s 108 yards on 23 carries factored into an offense that ran on 45 percent of its plays Sunday. Washington is 4-0 when it calls the run on 40 percent or more of its plays.
That should lead to another hefty workload for Helu, who enters Sunday’s game against the New York Jets with the confidence of his coach.
“He’s our starter for sure,” Shanahan said.