When the story of the 2011 Washington Redskins will be told, there will undoubtedly be a reference or two to the six-game losing streak that not only crushed the team's playoff hopes, but altered their fanbase's mindset. The Redskins faithful went from daring to believe the team had a shot at a playoff berth at 3-1 to almost hoping the team would lose their remaining games to gain an edge in the 2012 NFL Draft. That said, they still want to see signs of progress along the way, and have been clamoring for younger players on the roster give them a glimpse of what they hope is a bright future.
Enter rookie running back Roy Helu. The fourth rounder out of Nebraska provided a spark to the Redskins offense that helped propel them to a much needed 23-17 win over the Seattle Seahawks, one that finally ended Washington's six-game losing skid.
Mike Shanahan's curious use of his running backs in recent weeks have left some wondering if the team even had an every-down back on its roster. Giving backs like Ryan Torain and Tashard Choice carries in the last few games gave the impression that Shanahan didn't believe Helu was ready to carry the load. But that's not the case anymore, apparently.
"I thought he was ready," the head coach told reporters after the game. "I thought he was ready to play a full game."
Helu proved he was ready, notching 30 touches (23 rushing, seven receiving) and accounting for 162 yards of total offense. The rookie displayed many of the qualities that led Shanahan to want to draft him in the first place, showing his quickness, decisiveness and, most of all, his ability to make people miss.
That was never more evident than the most eye-popping play of the day. The Nebraska product took a toss from Rex Grossman on third-and-three, cut to his left and hurdled a Seahawks defender while maintaining his balance. Once he landed, he kept the run alive as he was able to shed the tackle of a charging Kam Chancellor en route to a 28-yard touchdown run, the first of his young career. It was the type of run that had been sorely lacking from the Redskins offense, a unit that desperately needed the big play in the ground game all year long.
Now that he's shown what he can do when given the bulk of the carries, the running back carousel should be over. Helu should be given the same opportunity that second year linebacker Perry Riley has been given on defense. He should be allowed to take over for a struggling veteran and try to make a strong case to be the guy at that spot in 2012.
That's what the rest of this season is about anyway, isn't it? Evaluating the younger players to see who can become key contributors for the 2012 season and beyond. Helu looks to fit that bill, and there's no reason to think an other back should be taking significant carries away from him during the final five game stretch this season.
The key for Helu going forward is whether or not he can have performances like this on a consistent basis. He showed great toughness against a solid Seattle front, but in the next few weeks he'll be going up against the likes of the New York Jets, Giants and Minnesota Vikings, all of whom are in the top half of the league in rush defense. Helu can prove just how big of a piece he is to the Redskins rushing puzzle if he can finish the year strong.
That evaluation, of course, becomes much harder if he isn't named the starter for the rest of the season.
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