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Running game to keep Cards, 'Skins grounded

December 11, 2005|By Mel Reisner

TEMPE, Ariz. -

The Washington Redskins need to win out to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals need to win out to avoid a losing season.

A month ago, the Redskins (6-6) appeared headed for the postseason. The Cardinals (4-8) went to training camp as a favorite of many to win the NFC West, something that seems ludicrous in retrospect.

Both teams have strong defenses and offenses led by seasoned quarterbacks. But that's where the similarities end in this reunion of former NFC East rivals - the Redskins can control the pace of a game by running the ball, and the Cardinals can't.

At least, not so far.

"If they throw for 220 (yards) and run for 50 or 60, we probably win that game," Arizona coach Dennis Green said. "But if they run for 250 and throw for 100, we're not going to win that game. You cannot allow that team to run, and I'd say the same thing about us.

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"If we're able to put together our first 100-yard game, I'd say it increases our chances of winning."

The fact the Cardinals are still looking for triple-digit yardage out of the ball carriers is telling - and ominous.

The Redskins are averaging 133 yards, and Clinton Portis has run for 1,079 and seven touchdowns. Portis (136) and Rock Cartwright (118) gave Washington a pair of 100-yard rushers and a season-high 257 team yards in last week's 24-9 victory over St. Louis.

That ended a stretch in which the Redskins lost three straight games by a total of 10 points. They scored two TDs in the fourth quarter in St. Louis, silencing concerns they couldn't win close games.

"That was huge," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "We got in that fourth quarter, and the previous three games we weren't able to pull it out."

Portis, who has five 100-yard games, is on pace to gain about 1,400 yards after generating 1,315 last season, his first with the Redskins. Before that, he had two 1,500-yard seasons in Denver.

But coach Joe Gibbs doesn't want to hear about any decline in production.

"Clinton last year had over 1,300 yards and missed the last game," Gibbs said. "A lot of people look at that and say for him it was a down year. It wasn't for us here at the Redskins. That matched John Riggins' best year, so I thought he had a heck of a year considering our offense wasn't very productive."

Gibbs believes the offense has been tweaked. Brunell is having a better year behind an offensive line thriving in the second year under assistant head coach-offense Joe Bugel.

Bugel, who coached the Cardinals from 1990-93, was credited with developing the Redskins' formidable "Hogs" offensive line of the 1980s. The 21st century edition is called the "Dirtbags," and has a similar look: stability.

Chris Samuels, Derrick Dockery, Casey Rabach, Randy Thomas and Jon Jansen, who sat out last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, have started every game at their respective positions this year, an obvious clue to their improved cohesion.

By contrast, the Cardinals have been beset by injuries on both sides of the ball. Two defensive linemen from the original eight remain, and left tackle Leonard Davis is the only offensive line regular who has lined up for every game.

The Cardinals placed center Alex Stepanovich on injured reserve Tuesday, making him the fourth offensive lineman and sixth starter lost for the season. With some starters still unaccustomed to Kurt Warner's cadence, it's small wonder Arizona has committed 32 penalties in its last three games.

The Cardinals had 11, seven by offensive linemen, in a 17-10 win over San Francisco last week.

"It's not just a solo thing," Warner said. "Those guys have to work together and have continuity, and it's been tough on them, I know. You're going to have to deal with whatever you get, but I've never been in a situation where one position or group of positions has been that decimated as ours was this year."

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