Redskins set at RB with Torain, Hightower, Helu
Ryan Torain was headed for a touchdown, and no one was going to stop him. A couple of yards from the goal line, the Washington Redskins running back lowered his shoulder and punished St. Louis Rams safety Darian Stewart, bouncing off the defender like a pebble skipping on a pond before landing in the end zone.
Torain bounced up, flicked the ball away, puffed his chest and started celebrating his first touchdown of the season. Before the day was over, he would have 135 yards - with an astounding 96 of them coming after contact. His average was 7.1 per carry - 5.1 of them after the first hit by a defender.
Compare that Torain to the one who spends his weekdays at Redskins Park, the mild-mannered player who says little, who last year looked nervous with stage fright any time a group of reporters would surround his locker.
''He's that way every day. He's a humble guy. Quiet. Not very much to say. He says it on the field,'' said fullback Darrel Young, Torain's roommate on road trips. ''Coach asks him something, he'll give you the answer that you want. Nothing more. So he's kind of straight to the point. Which is a good thing. He's never going to sugarcoat anything. He's a very understanding guy, a fair guy, team guy, but he is very soft-spoken.''
The Redskins (3-1) have the luxury of a three-headed running back quandary. Tim Hightower started the first four games, but Torain's monster performance in relief against the Rams makes him the favorite to become the new workhorse. In between there's rookie Roy Helu, who has been a sparkplug as a chance-of-pace back.
Coach Mike Shanahan isn't saying who will get the bulk of the work in Sunday's NFC East showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles, but he made it clear Torain's early-season exile is over.
''Any time a guy's averaging 7 yards a carry, you're sure going to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do,'' Shanahan said.
Torain had a coming-out season last year, starting eight games and rushing for 742 yards. But he's also been injury-prone throughout his young career, and he lost his chance to keep the starting job at the beginning of this season when he broke his hand in training camp.
He got back on the field when Hightower's left shoulder started acting up early against the Rams. With the bye week to recuperate, Hightower said his shoulder is now fine, but he was limited in Wednesday's practice. Still, he said he's playing Sunday and that it's important for him to hang on to the starting job.
''Yeah, it's important. That's my job. That's what I do. That's what I take pride in. I take pride in coming here every single day and playing to my potential and winning,'' Hightower said. ''As far as whether it happens, that's out of my control.''
That's positively expansive compared to anything Torain might say. Torain keeps his answers politically correct, and no interview with him would be complete without his favorite phrase, ''working hard.'' He admits he was uncomfortable ''a lot'' last year when confronted with all the attention.
''Coming from a rookie year and not playing, coming to a big city like D.C., it was an experience,'' said Torain, who played two games for Shanahan's Denver Broncos in 2008 before sitting out 2009 with an injury. ''I took a lot in. I learned a lot. I just kept working with it and enjoyed it and learned how to handle the (media) situations when I get put in them.''
Young said Torain's attack mode on the field is just another example of how players change their mentality once they take the field. He did add, however, that Torain felt it was an ''eye-opener'' to be third-string for the first three weeks of the season.
Torain, naturally, had a more diplomatic take on his idle period.
''Stay positive. Always know there's going to be competition wherever you go,'' Torain said. ''And just keep working hard.''
Hightower was projected to be a third-down back when the Redskins traded for him, and that's the role he could resume - assuming the shoulder is fine. He's a better blocker and pass-catcher, but he's averaging only 3.5 yards per carry. Plus, he got a lecture of Shanahan about keeping the shoulder injury a secret for three weeks after hurting it in the Week 1 win over the New York Giants.
''I don't think he shared with people that he was pretty hurt, even at the end of that Giants game,'' Shanahan said. ''He played against Arizona and he was hurting a little bit more than he let on, and I could see it, but he never said anything. I talked to him on the side, I said, `You've got to be a little bit more honest with me. If you are hurting, I've got to know you're hurt.' He didn't want to admit it.''
Meanwhile, the Redskins' running back of the future could very well be Helu, the fourth-round pick from Nebraska whose cutback style works well behind Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. Helu is averaging 5.3 yards with his half-dozen or so carries per game.
''That's a lot of good competition,'' Hightower said. ''It's going to bring out the best in one of us, or all of us, and ultimately it's going to make our team better.''
Notes: Young said he's full-go after missing two games with a hamstring injury. ... WR Anthony Armstrong (hamstring) and CB Phillip Buchanon were limited in practice. Buchanon's shoulder was expected to be an issue as he returned from a four-game suspension, but Shanahan said Buchanon's latest issue is a sore neck.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP