The past two games, the defense showed improved resolve against the run, stuffing the Lions and Cowboys en route to a pair of easy victories. Neither the Lions, who featured rookie Kevin Jones, Shawn Bryson and Artose Pinner, or the Cowboys with Eddie George and Richie Anderson can be considered top-notch rushing offenses. In Week 8, however, the Packers improved run defense gets its biggest test yet as they face Clinton Portis and the Washington Redskins.
Portis is a game-breaking running back, the kind that can carry a team to victory practically on his own. The Miami (Fla) alum rushed for over 1,500 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry in each of his first two seasons with Denver. With the Redskins, Portis has averaged only 3.9 yards per carry but has still been the key to the Washington offense. In the two games Portis has rushed for over 100 yards, Washington has won. In the four games defenses held the Redskins star halfback under the century mark, Washington has been defeated.
Joe Gibbs won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks during his first tour of duty with Washington in the 1980s and '90s. The reason Gibbs was able to win with three different signal callers is because his offenses always revolved around the running game. John Riggins, Ernest Byner, Gerald Riggs and George Rogers each ran Gibbs' signature counter tray to success with Riggins reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
When Gibbs agreed to coach the Redskins for the second time in 2004, his first major acquisition was Portis who was designed to be the workhorse back who would carry the load for Gibbs' offense. Portis has the size and durability to be the mainstay of the offense unlike last year's runners Trung Candidate and Rock Cartwright. Portis specializes in finding seams in the defense and cutting back to turn a seemingly typical play into a big gain. This kind of cutback running hurt the Packers defense during the team's four game losing streak. Stopping Portis will be a pivotal test for the Packers defense.
"They like to run a lot of zone stuff with cutbacks," nose tackle Grady Jackson said when asked about the Washington running game. "Portis is a great back. If we stop Clinton Portis, we stop the Redskins."
Jackson made his return to the Green Bay lineup last Sunday and was in the game for about 30 plays. Although he was credited with only 2 tackles and one assist, he was a major difference maker in the game. Jackson's very presence made the Packers run defense more formidable and changed the way the Cowboys approached their offense.
Jackson's return gave the Packer defense a big confidence boost.
"We definitely feel better prepared to stop the run than we did two or three weeks ago," middle linebacker Nick Barnett said. Barnett also said the Redskins aren't very fancy when they try to run the ball. "They try to move the whole offensive line to one side and let him [Portis] run behind that side," Barnett added. "If you have your gap, stay in your gap."
The Pack needs Jackson to play more than 30 plays and to help stuff Portis. The Redskins passing game has been anemic this year and is ranked 28th in the league in passing yards per game despite being behind in most of their contests. Ex-Packers backup Mark Brunell has been the starter although he has failed to pass for over 100 yards in three of the team's first six games and has only gone over the 200 yard mark once. In short, if the Packers contain Portis, the Redskins will have a hard time winning the game. Linebacker Na'il Diggs understood the importance of winning this final game before the bye week. "We can come back from the bye and sort of start over. It would be a great momentum change for us."
Sunday's game will be a good test of the Packers' improved run defense. It should provide the Packers coaching staff and fans with an indication if the Pack has a real chance to be a contender or is just another pretender in the playoff race.
The Packers haven't played in Washington since December 2, 1979. In that game, David Whitehurst started at quarterback but was relieved by Lynn Dickey who made his first appearance since breaking his leg late in the 1977 season. The Redskins won 38-21. Dickey started all the games for the remainder of the season and didn't relinquish the starting role until 1985.
Amazing stat: In every presidential election year since 1936, the incumbent has been re-elected if the Redskins won their last home game before election day. That means if the Packers beat the Redskins, John Kerry should win the upcoming election. Should the Pack lose, George W. Bush is likely to be re-elected.
The Packers banged up runners face a tough test against Washington. The Redskins have the top rated run defense in the league entering play this week. Ahman Green (Achilles) and Najeh Davenport (hamstring) continue to battle injuries but also are both expected to play. Green was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his 163-yard, two touchdown effort against Dallas.