ASHBURN, Va. (AP) - Washington coach Mike Shanahan vowed Thursday to restore a rushing attack that has been the worst in the NFL since he took over the Redskins.
"We will get that running game back, I promise you," Shanahan said. "I've been doing it over 20 years, and that's our trademark."
Shanahan's pride showed as he referenced his track record with the Denver Broncos, where his ground game was regularly ranked in the top 10 and never finished below 12th. It never seemed to matter who the running back was - Terrell Davis or Olandis Gary or Reuben Droughns or Clinton Portis or Tatum Bell - the Shanahan zone-blocking scheme always seemed on pace to produce a 1,000-yard rusher during his run in Denver from 1995-2008.
Yet, since Shanahan came to Washington last year, the Redskins have averaged a league-low 89.6 yards rushing per game. They're at 86.7 this season, ahead of only the Tennessee Titans.
While saying he wasn't making excuses, Shanahan cited injuries to tight end Chris Cooley, running back Tim Hightower, receiver Santana Moss and particularly offensive linemen Kory Lichtensteiger, Trent Williams and Jammal Brown as sapping the offense's continuity.
"Any time you have a lot of different pieces in the offensive line, you're not as consistent as you'd like," Shanahan said. "It just takes one guy to be a little bit off, because if the play is going to go outside or cut all the way back, everybody's got to be in unison. ... And if you do lose somebody, you're hoping that you have the depth where you don't skip a beat, and if it's the offensive line or the running back position, it goes hand-in-hand."
The Redskins (3-6) haven't rushed for more than 92 yards in any game during their current five-game skid. Hightower wasn't exactly a world-beater before he blew out his left knee against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 23 - he was averaging 3.8 yards per carry - and Ryan Torain and Roy Helu have struggled to find traction trying to replace him.
The lack of a running game - in addition to shaky play by quarterbacks Rex Grossman and John Beck - has contributed to Washington's slow starts. The Redskins haven't scored a touchdown on an opening drive all season and have amassed only 16 first-quarter points. They haven't scored a first-half touchdown or held a lead since Oct. 2.
That means they're playing catch-up in the second half, and it's reflected in the paltry number of rushing attempts. The last three games, the Redskins have run the ball 11, 15 and 16 times and have compiled a total of 20 points.
Right guard Chris Chester has been the only constant along an offensive line that could start its fifth different combination in six games on Sunday when the Redskins host the Dallas Cowboys.
Asked if it's easier to replace running backs than offensive linemen, Shanahan said: "Everything starts up front, on offense or defense. If you don't have a good offensive front, or if you don't have a good defensive front, you're not going to win in the National Football League. You're not going to be consistent. You may be lucky enough to get 10 games or 11 games, but once you get to the playoffs, your chances of doing something aren't very good."
Although there are still seven games to play, the Redskins have reached the point where it's time to start analyzing what went wrong and how to fix it in time for next season. The team chose during free agency to focus on improving a defense that ranked 31st in the league in 2010, and Shanahan indicated that the offense will get similar attention come next spring.
"You've got to target something in the offseason. That's what we targeted," the coach said. "And I really think we were fine on offense, but when you lose four or five of those guys, you're not quite as deep as you'd like. But you've always got a plan, but you're always looking at the salary cap. You've taking a look at offense-defense. And you're taking a look at drafts. Then you try to come up with the best plan."
On Thursday, tackles Brown (groin) and Sean Locklear (ankle) were limited in practice, and guard Maurice Hurt (knee) sat out. Left tackle Trent Williams is still working his way back into top form after missing two games last month.
In other words, it's going to take some time for Shanahan to come through with his promise.
"Once we get it rolling and get the depth that we want," he said, "I think consistently we'll be good every year."