RBs Cadillac Williams and Clinton Portis were two of the NFC's hottest players down the stretch
Clinton Portis had the best game of his season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that's saying something.
Portis had a magnificent 2005 campaign overall, particularly during the second half when he rushed for over 100 yards in six of the Washington Redskins' last eight games. So there were plenty of candidates for his top outing, including a pair of three-touchdown efforts against Arizona and Philadelphia.
But Portis' 144 yards against the Buccaneers on November 13 were a season-high, as was his 6.3 yards per carry. His 31-yard breakaway in the first quarter was the longest run surrendered all season by Tampa Bay's defense, which is allergic to big plays. And his eight-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter appeared to put the Redskins on the path to victory until Chris Simms, Edell Shepherd and Mike Alstott pulled out the miraculous win for Tampa Bay.
In contrast, the Buccaneers' Cadillac Williams had the least productive outing of his Rookie of the Year season that afternoon, or at least one of them. That game fell in the middle of a stretch of four games in which Williams gained between 13 and 29 yards while he tried to overcome a debilitating foot injury. The Bucs' rookie was the engine that drove the Bucs to their 4-0 start, but his injury led to some tough days in the middle of the season. Williams gained just 20 yards on 10 carries against Washington and never had a run of more than six yards. That forced Simms to provide the heroics through the air, and Alstott to produce the winning points on a last-minute two-point conversion.
In retrospect, given the afternoons enjoyed or not enjoyed by Portis and Williams, it's almost surprising that it was the Buccaneers who finished that day in the black. It was also critical.
Had that two-point conversion gone the other way, assuming the rest of the season's results stayed the same, Washington and Carolina would be division champs instead of New York and Tampa Bay. Of course, Portis and Williams meet again this week, in a game in which they figure to be two of, if not the two, most important players, and the stakes are even higher. This time, the loser is finished for the year.
The Bucs overcame a lot to win that day, not the least of which was the disparity between Portis and Williams' numbers. They don't consider that the best formula to produce a repeat on Saturday when Tampa Bay and Washington meet in an NFC Wild Card game in Raymond James Stadium. Running the ball and stopping the run, two areas in which both of these teams excelled in 2005, are considered critical in the postseason.
"You have to stop the run," said defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "Playoff teams run the ball efficiently throughout the season and now they're going to try to run it in the postseason. That's got to be the backbone of your team, if you can run the ball going into the playoffs."
As you would hear during any given week of the season in the Bucs' locker room, the defensive game plan starts with halting the run. That just happens to be a much more difficult task against Portis, who was the NFL's fourth-leading rusher with 1,516 yards this season.
"He's a special back," said linebacker Ryan Nece. "I think he has more carries than they have attempts throwing the ball in the last five games. That says a lot about the way they're playing. They've won the last five. They're winning and he's carrying the team right now."
Portis, in fact, has carried the ball 204 times for 896 yards over the last eight games, beginning with the contest in Raymond James, and he's been given at least 22 carries in every one of those games, remarkably. Nece is right; over the last five games, Portis has 130 carries and quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey have thrown 112 passes. Clearly, the Redskins are going to keep running it with Portis until it is proven ineffective. That's the Bucs' job on Saturday.
"With [Head Coach] Joe Gibbs behind him, they're going to run the ball, run the ball," said defensive end Greg Spires. "It's going to be up to us to stop them and put them in third-down situations. But if they can get a few runs off early, they're going to continue to run. I think it's going to end up with us, the defense, stopping the run and getting off the field on third down."
Portis' success makes Brunell and speedy wide receiver Santana Moss that much more dangerous. Brunell (and Ramsey in relief) threw only 18 passes in a 35-20 win over the Giants two weeks ago, but three of them went for touchdowns to Moss.
"His offensive line is doing a good job of creating some holes," said linebacker Derrick Brooks. "When you do that, it's setting up the play action pass and the deep balls to Santana Moss. So, defensively we've got our work cut out for us in stopping Clinton Portis."
After coming over from Denver in a trade for Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, Portis had a somewhat pedestrian season (for him) as a Redskin in 2004, rushing for 1,315 yards but averaging just 3.8 yards per carry and scoring just five touchdowns. This year, is getting 4.3 yards at a time and has scored 11 TDs. The Redskins, also in their second year of Gibbs' return to the sideline, have all the pieces in place for a perfect support system for Portis and are making the most of it.
Part of that is Gibbs' zone running scheme, which is a little different from what the Bucs' defense faces on most afternoons. In such a scheme, offensive linemen generally sidestep one way or the other and are responsible for a specific zone rather than a specific defender. The running back will often stretch laterally behind the line before choosing which hole to shoot through. Portis has excelled in that system and the Bucs struggled against it in November.
"He's one of the top backs in the league," said Hovan. "I think when we faced Washington, that was the first time we faced [a zone-blocking team] throughout the year. I think in playing Atlanta and some other zone teams in the league, we know where our assignments are and who fits where, so I think we'll be a lot better prepared this week going into this game."
The Bucs, in contrast, are more of a downhill running team. Their linemen take on certain defenders and try to drive them out of the way, creating a specific hole that the running back is supposed to aim for. That has certainly worked well for Williams, who has rare acceleration to the gap, incredible leg strength to move defenders and the ability to make the key move on the far side of the initial hole.
Williams' injury cost him a chance to be at Portis' plateau at the end of the season, but he still won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and was the critical new addition to the Bucs' offense. When Williams rushed for 100 yards, the Bucs were 6-0. He and Portis both finished strong; Portis was third in the NFL and second in the NFC in rushing over the last five games with 573 yards while Williams was eighth and fifth, respectively, with 462.
The Redskins, who finished the regular season 13th in the league against the run, had little trouble with the Bucs' rookie in November, but most of Williams' teammates feel he was still not running at top speed at that point. Cadillac himself prefers to give credit to Washington.
"You could say that [about his injury], but those guys came in and had a good game plan," he said. "You've got to tip your hat to them. They're a great defense. We're going to take it for what it's worth and see if we can't establish a run against these guys."
Tampa Bay's offense had to open things up a bit in that Washington game when it developed into a shootout. Even with Michael Clayton sidelined, the Bucs used a lot of three-wide receiver sets and Simms threw deep frequently. Since that game, however, the offense has more often than not lined up in two-tight end formations and thrown quicker passes while pounding away with Williams. It has worked.
"When you're in those sets, most of the time, it's, 'Run left, Cadillac,' [or] 'Run right, Cadillac,'" said Simms. "So, of course, that makes my job easier. I think it goes back to our offensive line, and how well they are playing right now. They are playing physical. We are just kind of lining up and saying, 'This is what we got, try to stop it,' and we've been coming out on top."
The Bucs didn't really have that option the last time they played Washington. Now they do. Clinton Portis may be at the top of his game – and he has hurt the Buccaneers on more than one occasion – but Cadillac Williams is fresh and ready to go, too. If this game is going to be won on the ground, as many are predicting, at least the Buccaneers are going into it with an answer this time.
"Oh, man, I feel great," said Williams. "I'm just ready to play. I'm excited. Just thinking about it – if we win three we go to the Super Bowl – has got me fired up. I'm looking forward to it."