Just when I thought I was out, Roy Helu pulls me back in.
As this preseason has unfolded, the one thing we thought we knew about the Washington Redskins' running back situation was that Helu was confirming the coaching staff's fears about his ability to stay healthy. He hadn't been any kind of factor at all since the first preseason game, sitting out practices with sore Achilles' tendons while Evan Royster and Alfred Morris got starts and Tim Hightower made his return from last year's knee surgery. And in the first half of the Redskins' 30-3 preseason victory over the Buccaneers on Wednesday, it was all Royster.
But then in the second half came Helu, showing that burst through the line he showed when he got his chance last year and rolling up 90 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries. He even added 34 more yards on two catches, reminding everyone of that receiving ability with which they fell in love last year. I thought he looked good in blitz pickup, too. The result was the upstaging of Royster's 10-carry, 44-yard first half and a further deepening of the muddle that is the Redskins' starting running back picture with a week and a half left before the season opener. To wit:
Is Helu really their most talented back? And if he is, can they count on him to stay healthy? Or will nagging injuries always be an issue? Can they use him as a third-down back, or increase his reps in the second half after one of the other guys has softened up the defense?
Is Hightower healthy enough for a starter's workload 10 months after surgery to repair a torn ACL? And even if he is, has he lost a step?
Does Royster show more as a consistent runner than Helu does, in spite of the latter's explosiveness and receiving ability? And if so, is that the more important factor?
Is the rookie Morris good enough yet in pass protection to get significant reps as the starter if need be?
All we know is that (a) they like Hightower as the starter out of all of these guys if he's healthy and (b) he's not fully healthy right now. So there's no way to know who the starter will be on Sept. 9 in New Orleans until we see who runs on the field. But Mike Shanahan believes he has four good running backs who can succeed in his system, and that's fine by him. I reassert my belief that four different backs will start games for the Redskins this year, which is the same number of backs that started games for them last year, and that whoever it is that gets the ball from week-to-week will be a threat to clear 100 yards. Call the Redskins' running back "Timfred Heloyster."
Here's what else I noticed in the Redskins' final game of the preseason. Warning: It ain't much.
It's not that they had five sacks -- it's where they came from to get them. Marlon Favorite, Kedric Golston, Darrion Scott... the defensive line was generating pressure up the middle. With backups. And against backups, too, yes, I know that. But what this tells me is that the Redskins' defensive scheme doesn't plan to limit itself to using those outside linebackers to generate pressure. If they get an interior rush going, they could be a real force up front with the depth they do have (ahead of the guys who played Wednesday) on the defensive line.
The Redskins had to like seeing rookie cornerback Richard Crawford get an interception a few days after trading Kevin Barnes. Crawford's performance this preseason is one of the things that made Barnes expendable. The Redskins also like rookie safety Jordan Bernstine, who also had a pick.
I don't see how Brandon Banks has made the team as a wide receiver. He is still dangerous as a return man, and he had one very long catch. But he doesn't fight for the ball effectively against defenders and just doesn't show enough, technique-wise, as a wide receiver compared to the other guys competing for the spots. And Aldrick Robinson looks like he can handle kick returns, and someone (Santana Moss?) will figure out punt returns.
New kicker Billy Cundiff missed from 46 yards, but he sure looked good drilling those kickoffs through the back of the end zone. Expect a lot more of that from the guy who set an NFL record last year for touchbacks in a single season. I have to believe that's why he's on the team and Graham Gano is not.