Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.
Clinton Portis played one of the toughest football games I've ever seen in the Redskins' win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. After missing practice last week with a hip flexor, Portis played, and he played with reckless abandon.
Portis carried 27 times for a hard-fought 175 yards, and he did more than just that: He had an absolute monster of a game in pass protection, never hesitating to take on Cleveland's pass rushers. It might have been the best game any NFL running back has had this season.
Portis is one of the few top-notch running backs who looks like he relishes pass blocking. On the very first play of the game, Portis's assignment was to chip one of the Cleveland defenders and then run a short route. But since Cleveland rushed only three and Washington's offensive line did a good job on them, there really wasn't anyone for Portis to block. But Portis blocked anyway, plowing into Browns defensive tackle Shaun Rogers even though Rogers was already being double teamed. A lot of elite running backs would have avoided contact on a play like that, but Portis initiated it.
Portis showed against the Browns a running style that makes him incredibly difficult to tackle. On a second-and-4 in the first quarter, Portis took a handoff and was grabbed by Browns linebacker Kamerion Wimbley a yard behind the line of scrimmage. But while he didn't exactly run over Wimbley, he also got low and kept driving his legs, and he had picked up five yards by the time Wimbley dragged him down.
One of Portis's best runs doesn't show up in that 175-yard total. On the first play of the Redskins' second drive, Portis took a handoff, saw an opening on the right side of the line, and exploded through it, getting to full speed and then colliding with Redskins center Casey Rabach, who was blocking for him about eight yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But Portis kept churning his legs, showing incredible power pushing forward, and picked up another seven yards after that. The whole play was called back by a holding penalty on Redskins fullback Mike Sellers, but it was still a great individual effort by Portis.
I think what I like best about Portis is that he has the rare combination
of both the patience to wait for a hole to open up and the ability to get through the holes quickly. He had a pair of runs on consecutive plays, immediately before and immediately after the two-minute warning in
the first half, that showed that.
The first of the runs was designed for Portis to follow Sellers around the left end, but when Portis got there, the Browns had stretched the play out well enough that there wasn't any room for him to run without going out of bounds. So Portis paused for just a beat, put his hand on the back of left tackle Chris Samuels at the line of scrimmage, and then cut back inside behind Samuels to pick up seven yards behind a good block on the inside by guard Randy Thomas.
The second of those runs was on second-and-3, with Portis following Sellers again, this time to the left. Sellers got a good block on Browns safety Sean Jones, and the easy thing for Portis to do would have been to follow Sellers' lead to the outside. But Portis saw that there was a cutback lane opening up to his inside, so he allowed the three Browns players in the area to take themselves out of the play, and he ran behind them down the middle of the field for a gain of 20.
Portis loves to start plays to the outside and then cut back to the inside, and he's very good at knowing when and where to do it. At the same time, though, as I watched him doing it, I kept thinking that Portis is a running back on the tail end of his career, a guy who doesn't have a lot of good years left in him.
Yes, Portis is only 27, and that might not sound very old, but running backs don't often stay productive beyond their 20s -- and Portis has taken more punishment than most running backs his age. This is his seventh year in the league, and this season he's on pace for 373 carries, which as Portis's new teammate Shaun Alexander knows, is dangerous territory, as Doug Farrar wrote at the Washington Post's Smarter Stats blog:
In 2005, current Washington backup Shaun Alexander rushed 370 times for 1,880 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground for the Seattle Seahawks. He won the NFL MVP award and helped the Seahawks get to their first Super Bowl. After two more seasons of injuries and ineffectiveness with Seattle, he was out of the league, waiting for a team like the Redskins to make a call and offer him a job as an injury replacement.I have a bad feeling that Portis will look in a couple years like Alexander looks now, which is to say, washed up. And I think Portis is probably contributing to the breakdown of his body with his eagerness to be a tough, inside runner and a fierce pass blocker.
For now, though, I admire plays like the pass late in the third quarter when Portis drove his shoulder hard into Wimbley to protect his quarterback in the pocket. Those blocks -- and, of course, the runs that have Portis leading the league in carries and yards -- may shorten his career, but for now they're the reason he's the best running back in the league.