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The Tuesday Take: 14 Carries Not Enough

Oct 18, 2006, 3:13 AM EST

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In 2002, Steve Spurrier took his Redskins into Jacksonville to face the NFL’s worst rushing defense. Washington was on a two-game winning streak that was accomplished largely on the strength of a solid rushing game. So, Spurrier went out and called 51 pass plays and just 16 runs and the Redskins lost 26-7.

“I was dumb enough to think we could throw it up and down the field,” Spurrier said. “We ran a little bit here and there. We had a little success there early, and I got away from it too much. The second quarter, I kept thinking at midfield, we could throw the ball from there. But we didn’t do it very well. So, looking back, I called a lousy game.”

Al Saunders offered no such rambling explanation for his game plan last Sunday. Against Tennessee, the league’s worst rushing defense, Clinton Portis ran the ball just 14 times. Certainly, Saunders has much more NFL credibility than the Ballcoach did and he deserves a bit more slack and benefit of the doubt. But I’ve listened to two Gibbs pressers and some assorted other comments and I’ve heard absolutely nothing that would explain that number 14.

Certainly the game situation didn’t dictate that the Skins get away from the rushing game. The Redskins never faced more than a one-score deficit throughout the game and their prime back, the guy they have a $50 million contract to, the player who was clearly the missing piece to the offense during the team’s 0-2 start, the man who got them going when they needed a kick start in Houston, the one who controlled the game against Jacksonville’s supposedly impenetrable tackle tandem, the back who got 76 yards against the Giants despite the fact that the Redskins’ offense was otherwise completely dysfunctional, carried the ball just two and a half times per quarter.

Let’s take a look at a few series here. After the Redskins took a 14-3 lead, the Titans came back with a drive that resulted in a field goal to make it 14-6 with just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Certainly, this would have been a good time for the Redskins to grind out a drive against the league’s worst rushing defense, cool off the Titans’ offense, and reestablish control of the game.

Nope. The ensuing drive featured one Portis carry and covered 10 yards and six plays. The Titans got the ball back and took it into the end zone. It was 14-13, Tennessee’s confidence grew and the Redskins knew that they were in for an all-day battle.

At halftime Portis had all of seven carries for 44 yards, an average of 6.3 yards a pop. Mark Brunell was posting decent numbers, but he was averaging just 7.3 yards on each of his 14 passes. Why pass so much when the running game can get you almost as far?

After taking the second-half kickoff Washington had good field position at its own 39. Portis got his hands on the ball once, it was a four and out and Tennessee took the lead on the next drive.

In the fourth quarter with the score tied at 22, the Redskins get the ball back on a punt with 9:21 to play. Portis got one carry on the three and out, Washington held the ball for just 1:05 and the Titans got the game-winning field goal after the punt.

Again, the Titans had the league’s worst rushing defense coming into the game, giving up an average of 172 yards a game. Given that, it seems that the only person who could have stopped Portis on Sunday was Saunders and he did a great job of it.

Instead of the pound-it-out style of game that we should have seen, we saw a steady diet of slip screens, end arounds, reverses, and other such French pastry. Saunders seemed to be intent on tricking the Titans rather than letting the players beat them physically. The fact that you have a 700-page playbook doesn’t mean that you have to use it all in one game when just a handful of power running plays is what is needed to get the job done.

All that being said, for all of the woes of the offense, 22 points should have been enough to beat the Titans, a team that had not scored more than 16 points all year long. When you give up 177 yards rushing to Travis Henry, a back who has gained just 205 in the previous five games, when you let a rookie quarterback stand back and coolly complete a 23-yard pass on fourth and two, your offensive game plan probably isn’t going to matter much because it’s likely that the opposition will be able to do whatever it takes to outscore you.

And don’t forget the key role that special teams played in this defeat. The safety on the blocked punt didn’t play a huge role in the game, but what did was the exchange of punts after the Redskins tied the score. For one of the few times all day the defense bottled up Henry and Young. The Titans punted from their own 34. After Washington’s three and out and subsequent punt, Tennessee got the ball back at the Washington 43. That’s a net gain of 23 yards and two Henry runs later the Titans were in field goal range.

Still, the single worst aspect of the game was the offensive game plan. Again Saunders has earned much more NFL cred than Steve Spurrier ever had. But Spurrier stumbled in to some real wisdom when after that Jacksonville game he said, “You’re only as good as your last game. I’m not very good right now.”

The same can be said of Al Saunders.

Learning from mistakes?

It’s one thing to screw up. It’s exponentially worse to make the same mistake twice, especially two weeks in a row. They are going into a game where the plan again should be to pound Portis left, right, and up the middle. During their bye week the Indianapolis Colts supplanted the Titans as the NFL’s worse rushing defense. They are giving up 166 yards a game on the ground.

Barring an absolute fluke, there is exactly one way that the Redskins can win the game on Sunday and save their season. If they can rush for that 166 that the Colts are giving up, keep Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and the rest of the Colts’ weapons off the field for 35 or so minutes, they have a shot. Not much of one, mind you. Even if they do that and play generally error-free ball in all other aspects of the game they have no better than a one in ten shot of pulling off the upset.

But if Portis gets a single-digit number of carries in the first half and only one more than a baker’s dozen all day, it will get ugly early and unwatchable before the third quarter ends.

We will see if Saunders will learn from his mistake.

  1. Anonymous - Oct 18, 2006 at 12:16 PM

    I keep thinking this season that the Redskin defense has taken a step backward. Maybe it’s the loss of Pierce or the injury to Springs. Maybe it’s because the new players have not figured out what to do in the Williams scheme. However, 22 points should be enough to allow the Redskins to win. Whatever the offensive problems the Skins are having right now, I question if the defense is holding up their end this year. In the past 2 years, the defense has held the line time and time again. More than a few times, the defense had been able to dictate the outcome of games. This season, I don’t get that sense. Every time the D takes the field, I hold my breath and hope for intangibles.

    Good call noting the lack of rushing offense in the Titans game. At the point you notice that the Titans are not going to roll over (which I noticed when they lost the squeaker to Indy the week before), then it makes no sense that the Skins shouldn’t try their hardest to exploit the Titan’s biggest weakness on D.

    Finally, forcing Brunell to throw when he is clearly not in his zone should be avoided. I saw way too many forced passes and way too many throws toward Moss. The defense knows that Moss is the man. Better that the Skins (and Brunell) use this to their advantage to find other targets and use Moss as a decoy. Lloyd, REL, and Cooley should get more looks.

  2. Anonymous - Oct 18, 2006 at 2:06 PM

    Oh Danny boy your Skins, your Skins are fall’en. Even Tom Cruise would have known to call more rushing plays. Another disasterous season after they “won” the personnel off-season.

  3. Joe - Oct 18, 2006 at 2:30 PM

    Good comparison to the Jags game from the Spurrier era. I was thinking about that debacle 2 weeks ago when we played at NYG. Going into the game, the Giants had an average run defense and a bad pass defense. It seemed like Saunders let the playcalling get away from him when they essentially gave up on the running game early, presumably because they thought they could exploit the DBs. Portis was limited to less than 20 carries.

    There is a serious flaw in this thinking. Good teams don’t cater to their opposition, they impose their will and force the opponent to react. The Redskins identity has been to run first and play aggressive defense. I’d rather roll the dice with OUR style of football, then to cater to the opposition and hope for the best. Certainly, you’re going to try to exploit weaknesses, but you can’t do that to the point that you diverge from what you do best.

  4. Rich Tandler - Oct 18, 2006 at 2:49 PM

    Joe, I’m not so inclined to fault Saunders for the calls against the Giants. At the point where the Redskins punted the Giants back to the two and it was 6-3, Portis had 13 carries. By the time the Redskins had another offensive possession it was 16-3 and over half of the third quarter was gone.

  5. Joe - Oct 18, 2006 at 4:01 PM

    Then we disagree about this. I don’t think a 13 point deficit is so much to overcome with over 20 minutes to play that you have to change your offensive strategy.

    On their 1st Skins drive of the 3rd quarter, they ran the ball 4 out of 11 plays (only 36%) for 3, 11, 0, and 4. An average of 4.25 yard/carry should definitely be considered successful. And yet, on 3rd and 1 Saunders called that ridiculous pass to Cooley that fell incomplete. Why?! I mean, it’s certifiably crazy to not use your best weapon when he’s clearly having success.

    That drive was, arguably, the Skins last best chance at staying in the game. I contend that on 3rd and 1 from the Giants 24, they had 2 downs to pick up a yard. We had the personnel for that situation on the sideline and instead of going with our bread & butter, Saunders called for more French Pastry to set up a semi-long FG by an injured kicker.

    After that, it was vintage Brunell. Pass it to somebody’s knees. Throw it behind a reciever. Take a sack. Punt. Ugh. Don’t get me started on this bum.

  6. Rich Tandler - Oct 18, 2006 at 4:10 PM

    Oh, I completely agree that the pass on third down was an atrocious play call. Either that or Saunders was certain that Gibbs would go for it on fourth and one since that was the obvious call. In either case, the communication needed to be better or they should have run it.

    But on that drive, Portis ran 4 of the 10 plays prior to that third-down pass. I don’t think that’s abandoning the run.

  7. Anonymous - Oct 19, 2006 at 4:32 AM

    I NEVER, NEVER, EVER thought I would say the following words: Where is Ade Jimoh? Can you imagine a scenario where Ade Jimoh might be out best option at corner? As bad as Ade was early in his career, he clearly made significant progress last year and even made some great plays late in the season. I would put him in over Rumph or Wright who both are clearly not NFL quality corners. That gives you an idea of just how bad our secondary is. And with Griffin and Salevea out hurt (or playing hobbled) and light-weight Carter anchoring the run defense, we can’t stop the run or the pass. We are in big, big trouble. This season could get a lot worse, much, much worse. For the fist time this season, I think we’re going to get killed by Indy, Philly, New Orleans, (insert any team on our schedule here)… take your pick. There’s no excuse for losing AT HOME to a team like the Titans. It will take a miracle to win on Sunday. What the Redskins really need is a good General Manager. The personel moves made over the offseason were a complete disaster.

  8. justin - Oct 19, 2006 at 6:07 AM

    “And yet, on 3rd and 1 Saunders called that ridiculous pass to Cooley that fell incomplete. Why?! I mean, it’s certifiably crazy to not use your best weapon when he’s clearly having success.”

    Rich Tandler said…

    “Oh, I completely agree that the pass on third down was an atrocious play call.

    I hate to be rude, but you are both wrong! I watched that play 20 times on tape.

    Mike Sellers came out of the backfield into the flat on the left. There was no one within 5 yards of him, yet Brunell didn’t even look at him. Even though the pass rush was still 5 or 6 steps away and behind blockers, Brunell seemed to panic and unload that hideous pass to Cooley in double coverage.

    All he had to do was calmly turn to his left and dump off the ball to the wide open Sellers, easy 1st down.

    Saunders did not “call” the pass into double coverage, he called the play that worked perfectly, leaving Sellers open for an easy 1st down. Brunell simply screwed it up beyond belief.

  9. Joe - Oct 19, 2006 at 3:02 PM

    Justin, good point. The article in the post suggested exactly what you said, that the play was actually drawn up for Sellers but Brunell threw it to Cooley instead.

    For the moment, let’s set aside the issue of whether Brunell is our best option at QB. Not that it isn’t a legitimate topic — it’s just a different one.

    Here’s my problem with this. They drew up this play before the game and said (according to the Post) “the first time we have a 3rd and 1, let’s run this pass play.” I presume this is because they thought they could catch the defense out of position or fool them into thinking we’d run. Given that we have an o-line that prefers run blocking and one of the best RBs in the league, plus numerous short-yardage threats, why do we have to be tricky? Why do we have to try to fool anyone?

    In this instance, we had a 10-play drive going and deparately needed to score. Portis was averaging over 4 yards/carry on the drive. In that situation, we don’t need to sneak up on the defense and be tricky. We needed to pick up A YARD. Our team is built to run. And when we needed a yard most, we went with a pass play. It’s crazy!

    I appreciate that sometimes you try to exploit a defense’s weakness. That said, at some point the winning team must impose their will on their opponent.

    Rich, you said you didn’t think the run balance was all that bad. I think this play is a symptom of the problem that is ailing us. It’s the same thing that reared it’s ugly face against the Titans. Too much french pastry, not enough meat and potatos.

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