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Surprising ground game has Skins in the running

Skins in the running with ground game




Contact John Markon at (804) 649-6892 or jmarkon @timesdispatch.com

LANDOVER, Md. Technically, the surprising Washington Redskins aren't that much of a surprise.

After yesterday's 20-17 home conquest of the New England Patriots, the Skins are 3-1. According to the Head Linesmen in Las Vegas, Washington has been favored in three of its games and 3-1 is exactly where the Redskins should be.

That doesn't take into account, however, that expectations were so low for the Skins coming out of the exhibition season that Washington might have opened as a seven-point underdog against the cast of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

Playing a series of injury-riddled, depleted opponents hasn't hurt.

The defensive line, billed as a potential disaster area, hasn't been half bad.

The new free safety, Ifeanyi Ohalete, had an interception yesterday and squelched the Patriots' final threat by defensing a fourth-down pass. His predecessor, David Terrell, spent two full years in the starting lineup and never seemed to do anything but chase receivers into the end zone.

Perhaps the most surprising Redskins development, however, has been the emergence of a running game. In the brief amount of time Washington's starters were on the field during the preseason games, the team and coach Steve Spurrier didn't appear to have the slightest interest in running the ball.

The team's proposed "feature" backs, scooter Trung Canidate and pile-driver Ladell Butts easily were dismissed as one-dimensional talents.

"It was an odd exhibition year," tackle Jon Jansen said. "We [starters] weren't on the field very much, and we didn't run when we were out there. I can't blame anyone for thinking we didn't want to run, but we knew we would and we could."

Through four games, the Redskins have outrushed their opponents 515 yards to 395 - even though their opponents have included Curtis Martin (Jets), Tiki Barber (Giants) and Warrick Dunn (Falcons). While neither Canidate nor Betts is likely to approach 1,000 yards as an individual, they are on pace for more than 1,700 yards in the aggregate.

Yesterday set up well for Canidate, who highlighted a pair of scoring drives with a 20-yard run and a 27-yard gain on a swing pass from Patrick Ramsey.

Some NFL coaches might take one look at Canidate and cut him. He's fast but small (5-11, 205). He'll run up to the line and tap dance, often losing yards looking for a possible breakaway. In his three years with the St. Louis Rams, who made him a first-round draft choice, he fumbled a lot.

"Today, we gave Trung a game ball," Spurrier said. "He was out there cutting back and juking some guys and breaking some tackles. He ran real hard and real well."

Even when he fumbled (his first as a Redskin), it was at the end of his 20-yard run and teammate Rod Gardner's recovery resulted in a gain of 24 extra yards.

"No matter how good your passing game might be," Canidate said, "you can't win in this league without running. Every team that overplays our passing game will learn to respect that we can run."

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick might be the best in the NFL at defensive strategy, and his defenses did slow down Ramsey, Laveranues Coles and Spurrier's passing offense. The Redskins threw for a modest 147 yards, about half their early-season average.

When they scored what would ultimately be the decisive touchdown in the third quarter, they drove 64 yards in six plays without attempting a pass.

Repeat . . . without attempting a pass.

"Scoring without throwing the ball," marveled Jansen, "that was new to me."

Life gets tougher for the Redskins, who spend the next two weeks in the company of the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the participants in last year's NFC championship game. Five of their next seven games are also at places other than FedEx Field.

Washington, in fact, may not be favored to win again until after Thanksgiving.

"We have to stick with running," Canidate said. "I really think we're making a believer out of coach Spurrier."

Now, that would truly be a surprise.

Contact John Markon at (804) 649-6891 or jmarkon@timesdispatch.com

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