Commentary

Eagles to see old-style Redskins run offense

With two quality tailbacks, and a young quarterback to protect, the Redskins are going back to the run-oriented offense favored by Joe Gibbs.

Updated: September 16, 2007, 8:45 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- In their second season under assistant head coach Al Saunders, the Washington Redskins offensive players still tote around his encyclopedic playbook, a nearly 700-page tome in which the meticulously doodled O's try to outmaneuver the X's.

This year, though, those players are turning more to the chapter devoted to running the ball than to the pages with all the brilliantly designed combination pass routes. With a young starting quarterback to insulate, and one of the league's best tailback tandems, the Redskins evidently are concentrating on trying to run over opponents rather than past them this season.

Clinton Portis
James Lang/US PresswireClinton Portis plans to carry the load for the Redskins against the Eagles.

That certainly was the message in last week's season-opening victory over Miami, a game in which Washington rushed for 191 yards on 41 carries. And it resonated in the locker room of the Philadelphia Eagles, who will host the division-rival Redskins on Monday night (8:30 ET, ESPN).

"I don't think there's any secret about their intention," said Eagles middle linebacker Omar Gaither, who has replaced departed four-time Pro Bowl performer Jeremiah Trotter. "They want to run the ball. They want to get those two backs coming downhill and really pound it at you."

Indeed, it appears that, after compiling a record of just 22-28 in the three years since he was lured out of retirement by owner Dan Snyder and a contract worth nearly $5.8 million per year, Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs has gone back to his roots.

The Redskins still will try to get vertical with their passing attack on occasion. And in Santana Moss and Antwaan Randle El, they definitely possess explosive, big-play wide receivers. But if the offense, which averaged just 18.9 points per game in the past three seasons, is to function better than it has so far in Gibbs' second NFL incarnation, it seems that a back-to-the-future approach is the best way of doing it.

Shabby offense has been the primary culprit in morphing Gibbs into a kind of Ordinary Joe the past three seasons. But sometimes, an offense actually has to get more ordinary -- has to strip away some of the subterfuge, eliminate the bells and whistles and spread formations, and return to simple fundamentals - to become more productive.

For the Redskins, such rationale seems a solid and well-grounded change.

Third-year quarterback Jason Campbell, a young passer with terrific pocket presence and a very live arm, enters Monday's game with just eight starts on his resume, and running the ball takes some pressure off him. And in Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts, who combined for 34 rushes and 157 yards last week, the Redskins boast a tremendous 1-2 tailback punch. Plus, the Redskins will be without standout right tackle Jon Jansen (who suffered a gruesome fractured ankle in the opener), and replacement Todd Wade is a much better run-blocker than pass-protector.

"I think we want to establish an identity," said Betts, who replaced the injured Portis last year and rushed for a career-best 1,154 yards, including 171 yards against the Eagles in a 21-19 loss Dec. 10. "And I think you saw some of that last week."

The Philadelphia defense is apt to see more of it, because relying so much on the run has become more than just a passing trend for the Washington offense, especially since Campbell replaced Mark Brunell as the starter with seven games left in 2006.

In the eight games (counting last week's opener) that Campbell has started, the Redskins have had more running plays than pass plays (272-239). In five of those eight starts, Washington ran the ball more than it threw it. The approach has allowed the former Auburn standout, a first-round pick in 2005 who didn't log a single snap as a rookie, to find a comfort zone.

Against an aggressive Philadelphia defense known for the exotic blitzes conjured up by coordinator Jim Johnson, who loves to bring pass-rushers from the secondary, a run-oriented attack might allow Campbell, who has been sacked just nine times in his eight starts, to stay on his feet. And, in general, running the ball against the Eagles' front seven is a sound and productive tactic, as Washington found last year.

In the two 2006 matchups, Washington rushed 71 times for 356 yards, a healthy 5.0 average. Although the Redskins lost both games, that shouldn't dissuade them from revisiting the 2006 formula.

The Eagles have an entirely revamped linebacker corps, with three new starters, and the front four remain a bit undersized, particularly at the two end spots. The defense played brilliantly in last week's loss at Green Bay, surrendering only 215 total yards, including a measly 46 rushing yards.

Still, the Philadelphia defense had five games in 2006 in which it surrendered 200-plus rushing yards. Not since 2002 have the Eagles been in the top 10 in rushing defense. In fact, in the past four seasons, Philadelphia has ranked 21st or lower versus the run three times, and its best statistical rating in that stretch was 16th.

"We've been tested, for sure, by teams that thought they could run it at us," veteran free safety Brian Dawkins said. "And this game will be another one of those tests."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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