Shanahan’s running game is starting to take shape in Washington

Washington Redskins’ head coach Mike Shanahan watches as his team plays the Buffalo Bills’ during their first pre-season game at FedEx Field in Washington on August 13, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Say what you want about Mike Shanahan’s ego, but the man knows how to install a good running game.

Just two years into his tenure as head coach of the Redskins, Shanahan has the team’s ground attack heading in the right direction. Two weeks after racking up 140 yards versus the Steelers and one week after torching the Colts’ defense for 215 yards, the Redskins were at it again on Thursday night, compiling 103 rushing yards against a stingy Baltimore front seven.

Granted, 103 yards isn’t overly impressive but don’t forget that the Skins were playing against a very good Baltimore defense and Week 3 of the preseason is when teams play their starters well into the second half. It appears as though Washington’s offensive line has taken to Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme and is starting to gel. Cohesion is crucial to Shanahan’s system and the Redskins’ front five has apparently found it, allowing Tim Hightower to gain 56 yards on nine careers (6.2 YPC) with one touchdown last night.

Shanahan has taken a lot of heat over the past two years for the way he’s run things in D.C., specifically in his handling of free agent bust Albert Haynesworth and quarterback Donovan McNabb. And seeing as how this Rex Grossman/John Beck situation seems destined to blow up in his face, there may be more criticism of Shanahan to come.

That said, he didn’t just fall into his 152-108 career coaching record and let’s not forget that the man has won two Super Bowls. He’s quirky yes, but it’s not that big of a stretch to think that he’s starting to turn things around in Washington. We’ll know more once the regular season starts, but I don’t think the Redskins’ success on the ground this preseason is a fluke. Take notice, NFC East.

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Fantasy Points Per Touch: RBs

New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs fends off Washington Redskins line backer Brian Orakpo to pick up get back to the line of scrimmage in the first quarter at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland on January 2, 2010. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

After each fantasy football season, I like to do something of a post-mortem by looking at certain stats that might give me a clearer picture of what in the hell just happened. One such stat is fantasy points per touch, which takes the total (non-PPR) fantasy points divided by the sum of the player’s carries and catches.

Here’s a look at the top 20 RBs (with at least 150 total touches) ranked by fantasy points per touch.

When trying to predict a player’s outlook, I always go back to the old fantasy addage, “Talent + Opportunity = Success.” This stat gives us an idea of a player’s talent by answering the question — how productive was this player with the touches he received? If a back is listed here, it indicates that he may very well have the talent to be a top 20 fantasy RB in the NFL if he were to receive the appropriate amount of touches.

A few takeaways:

– Brandon Jacobs can run the ball. His numbers here are a little skewed due to the nine TDs he scored in 147 carries, but he averaged 5.6 yards per carry and should be the feature back somewhere even if Ahmad Bradshaw is the better all around back. 2010 marks the third season in the last four that Jacobs averaged 5.0-plus yards per carry, so his poor 2009 numbers (3.6 ypc) look to be more of an aberration than a trend.

– Jamaal Charles is really, really good. If not for the presence of Thomas Jones, he would be a top 2 or 3 RB heading into the 2011 season. As it stands, I suspect he’ll be a mid-first round pick.

– Ryan Mathews has what it takes to be a very good RB2, but he needs to stay healthy and he needs RB2 touches. His teammate, Mike Tolbert, vultured his touchdowns and will do so again if he’s still a Charger next season.

– BenJarvus Green-Ellis figures to be a sleeper heading into the 2011 season. He’s a touchdown machine and a good runner (4.4 ypc), but Belichick’s fickleness at the RB position will likely depress the Law Firm’s value a bit. He should be a very solid RB2 next season.

– Peyton Hillis outperformed Chris Johnson, Frank Gore and Michael Turner on a per touch basis. Hillis should be the Browns’ feature back heading into 2011, and should continue to be productive even if Cleveland moves to a West Coast offense since he has the pass-catching skills to be effective out of the backfield.

– Michael Bush could be a star with a new team. He’s a free agent this summer, so if the Raiders don’t resign him (though they should), he could turn into a fantasy RB2 if he lands with the right team.

– Maybe Tim Hightower should be the Cardinals’ feature back. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and has good hands out of the backfield. People complain about his breakaway speed, but he had an 80-yard run this season. In 292 career carries, Beanie Wells has a career long run of 33 yards.

NFL Playoff Preview: Championship Sunday

New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts
3:00 pm ET

The New York Jets and their brashly confident head coach Rex Ryan just keep believing they can beat anyone. And while rolling over the fading Bengals twice was impressive, going into San Diego and beating a Chargers team that many expected to go to the Super Bowl was another thing entirely. Sure, they had a few breaks go their way, like Nate Kaeding missing three field goals, but the Jets came to play, and they held Philip Rivers and that high-flying offense to 14 points. It goes without saying that facing Peyton Manning’s Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium will be just as challenging, if not more challenging for Ryan’s upstart squad, but anyone who counts out their “ground and pound” offense and stifling D isn’t paying attention. Meanwhile, the Colts will not be pulling their starters in the third quarter as they did against Gang Green in Week 16, and they proved to everyone last Saturday that resting those players allowed them to be a step quicker than the wild card Ravens. Sure, the Ravens held the Colts to 20 points, but the Colts’ defense squashed the Ravens’ #5 ground game, allowing just 3 points, and they hope to do the same to the Jets’ top-ranked rushing attack, daring rookie QB Mark Sanchez to beat them through the air. Last week, Sanchez made just enough plays, but he needs to be wary of that quick, opportunistic defense of Indianapolis that forced four turnovers against Baltimore. THE PICK: COLTS 20, JETS 16

Minnesota Vikings at New Orleans Saints
6:40 pm ET

While both the Vikings and Saints struggled at bit down the stretch, they both flexed their collective muscle last weekend while eliminating the Cowboys and Cardinals, respectively. Minnesota sacked Tony Romo six times while holding a hot offense to just 3 points, and their own QB, old man Brett Favre, threw four touchdown passes and looked like a man half his age running around the field. New Orleans, after allowing a 70 yard touchdown to Tim Hightower, allowed only 7 more points the rest of the way, and D-coordinator Gregg Williams made all the necessary adjustments to stop Kurt Warner from keeping up with the Saints’ high-flying offense. And as for that offense, Drew Brees kept his gaudy completion percentage up high by going 23 of 32 (71.9%) for 247 yards, 3 scores and zero picks. And Reggie Bush was absolutely electrifying, rushing for a 46 yard touchdown and returning a punt 83 yards for the score that ultimately put the game out of reach. So what happens when these two superpowers meet in the, ahem, Superdome? It’s easy to say it will be a high scoring affair, but not when you consider how good each defense looked last week. More likely, it will be a close game, and one that will be determined in the final minutes or even in overtime. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about this game, so I’ll say it….get your popcorn ready! THE PICK: SAINTS 27, VIKINGS 24

Fantasy Football Quick-Hitters: Bowe, Julius, Hightower, Benson and Ronnie

Dwayne Bowe suspended for four games. Apparently, he violated the league’s substance abuse policy. Believe it or not, this makes Chris Chambers a viable fantasy option as the Chiefs don’t have much else going for them at WR. Lance Long may see more targets as well.

HC Mora admits that Julius Jones is “unlikely” to play in Week 11. This isn’t surprising considering that Jones was hospitalized on Sunday. Justin Forsett will get the start in a bad matchup with the Vikings. But from Week 12 on, Seattle’s schedule is pretty nice, so Forsett could potentially be a nice second-half pickup if Jones misses extended time. I wonder if the Seahawks are regretting letting Edgerrin James go.

Tim Hightower is still the Cardinals’ starter. This is going to be an interesting situation to watch down the stretch. The Cardinals have series of great rushing matchups, so will Hightower be as involved as Arizona tries to milk the clock? He seems to shine when Arizona is in catch up mode.

Cedric Benson may be a game-time decision against Oakland. The Raiders are terrible against the run, so whoever starts (Benson or Bernard Scott) should be a great start in Week 11. The team has already stated that the Larry Johnson signing has nothing to do with Benson’s injury, but the timing makes this hard to believe.

Ricky Williams will be the Dolphins’ every-down back with Ronnie Brown out. Brown apparently has two injuries — one to his ankle and one to his foot — and beat writer Omar Kelly says there’s a possibility that Brown will see a specialist. Williams’s value was already pretty high, but now it’s through the roof. Start him with confidence.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Six Pack of Observations: Cardinals heading to the Super Bowl

Here are six quick-hit observations from the Cardinals’ 32-25 win over the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1. Just keep doubting them – the Cardinals will just keep winning.
Let’s run through everything the Cardinals weren’t supposed to do this postseason, shall we? They weren’t supposed to stop Michael Turner or beat the Falcons in the first round. They weren’t supposed to win on the road or stop the Panthers’ dynamic running game in the second round. And then even when they did accomplish those things, they weren’t supposed to beat the Eagles because Philadelphia would finally pressure Kurt Warner like he hadn’t been the previous two weeks. Yet the Cardinals did beat Philly on Sunday, and they did so even though adversity stopped by in the third quarter and smacked them square in the mouth. (More on that next.)

2. The Cardinals did something Sunday that they hadn’t done much of all season – battle adversity.
When the Eagles scored a go ahead touchdown with just over 10 minutes remaining in the game to take a 25-24 lead in front of a stunned Arizona crowd, the Cardinals could have easily crumpled in the final quarter. Philadelphia had just scored 19 points in a matter of nine minutes, were starting to pressure Warner with more ease and had seized all momentum. But the Cards answered with a 14-play, 72-yard drive that took 12:07 off the clock and culminated in a Tim Hightower 8-yard touchdown run. They added the 2-point conversation on a pass reception by Ben Patrick and even though there was still plenty of time left on the clock at 2:53, you got the impression that the Eagles were cooked. Granted, ‘Zona benefited from a non-pass interference call on a 4th and 10 attempt to Kevin Curtis on the final drive, but the Cards had already capitalized on the most pivotal moment in the game by taking the Eagles’ best shot and answering back.

3. The Eagles only played 19 minutes of this game…
…had they played the entire game, they probably would have won. Something that got overlooked by many pundits in the week leading up to the contest was that this was the third straight road game for Philadelphia. It’s hard to win on the road as it is, nevertheless three straight weeks. It’s why most sixth seeds don’t make it to the Super Bowl. That said, had the Eagles played the entire game as well as they did in the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, they would have won. Granted, that’s an obvious statement since they scored 13 points and limited the Cardinals to –1 yard of total offense in that third period – but look deeper. In that third quarter, Jim Johnson finally was able to dial up the right pressure on Kurt Warner, Andy Reid was finally able to get the tired Arizona defense on their heels and Donovan McNabb finally was hitting receivers in stride and striking for big plays. (None bigger than DeSean Jackson’s wild 62-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth.) The Eagles essentially only executed their game plan for 19 minutes of this game and yes, the Cardinals had a lot to do with that. But Philadelphia also got in its own way more times than not by dropping passes, failing to execute Johnson’s blitzes and McNabb misfiring on a handful of passes. Were the Eagles tired? They didn’t necessarily show it if they were, but don’t overlook the fact that this team had to do a lot just to make the playoffs and then a lot just to get to Glendale on Sunday. And that could have factored into how they played.

4. Larry Fitzgerald.
What else can one say that hasn’t already been said? He’s amazing, spectacular – exceptional. With all due respect to the Texans’ Andre Johnson, Fitz is the best receiver in the NFL and the adjustment he made on Kurt Warner’s under throw on a 62-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter was incredible. He’s one of the few receivers in the league that consistently goes up to get the ball at its highest point and never lets it get to his body. He’s the best.

5. Who the hell is Brent Celek?
Non-Eagle fans go ahead and raise your hand if you knew who Celek was before the game. I knew who he was, but I had no idea he could be a game-changer. The second-year tight end out of Cincinnati was the perfect complement to DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis in that he worked the seams and gave Donovan McNabb a solid, reliable target the entire game. He also freed Jackson and Curtis up by clearing out the Cardinal safeties, which had to adjust to him being a legitimate target as the game wore on. What a game by the youngster who has no doubt made Eagle fans forget L.J. Smith.

6. How can you not love Adrian Wilson?
Because the Cardinals have been bad for so long, Wilson has often been known as just an underrated playmaker on a brutal defense. But now that the Cards are heading to the Super Bowl, general football fans can start to appreciate just how good the eight-year veteran is – and how loyal. When Wilson was set to become a free agent at the end of the 2004 season, he could have signed with numerous teams dying for a playmaking safety and a natural born leader. But as Joe Buck and Troy Akiman noted during the broadcast, Wilson never contemplated signing with another team and reached a modest five-year, $21 million contract with the Cards. Now he’s being rewarded for his contributions to Arizona’s franchise by having the opportunity to play in the Super Bowl. If you can’t root for a guy like that than you won’t be able to root for anybody.

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