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Rock's Setting the Pace

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In his first four seasons in the NFL, Rock Cartwright had been known mostly as a special teams cover guy and as a reserve running back.

So far in 2006, Cartwright has added another line to his resume: kick-return specialist.

The Redskins will need all the help they can get on Sunday, when they face the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in a key early-season NFC East matchup. To date, Cartwright has been willing and able to provide a spark.

After four games, he leads the NFC and is in third in the NFL with a 28.8-yard kick return average.

The NFL's top two in that department are Justin Miller of the New York Jets (31.7) and B.J. Sams (30.9) of Baltimore.

Last Sunday against Jacksonville, Cartwright returned five kickoffs for 150 yards, including a 46-yard effort in the fourth quarter that set up a key 37-yard field by John Hall with 1:55 remaining. The Redskins went on to win 36-30 in overtime.

Entering this season, Cartwright had returned 16 kickoffs for 277 yards, an unimpressive 17.3-yard average. In 2006, however, he appears to be faster, quicker and more decisive.

At various times in his career, Cartwright has shifted back and forth between running back and fullback. Accordingly, his weight has fluctuated. He's now listed at 215 pounds on a 5-7 frame.

After the fifth-year running back returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the Redskins' 27-10 loss to Dallas in Week 2, head coach Joe Gibbs spoke about Cartwright as a model Redskin.

"I don't think anyone means more to a football team than Rock Cartwright does for ours," Gibbs said. "He runs plays in practice. He plays special teams. He can play offense, and he runs back kicks.

"We have confidence in him if we put him in to run with the football. He would do an excellent job. He's an example of a guy who is a real Redskin, and he's playing extremely well for us."

Added running back Clinton Portis: "Not only do I take the onus on my shoulders in carrying this team, but Ladell [Betts] feels the same way and so does Rock. You see Rock back in kickoff returns slamming the ball in there, making people miss, and dragging people downfield.

"That is just the mentality of the group. We have to carry the team."

On his 100-yard return at Texas Stadium, Cartwright took the ball on the goal line, followed a wall of blockers to his right and got a full head of steam. He showed his speed in breaking away from the pack as he outran Cowboys defenders into the end zone.

Cartwright's runback fell two yards short of the Redskins' all-time kickoff return record set by Larry Jones in 1974.

The effort by Cartwright marked the first kickoff return for a touchdown allowed by Dallas since 1993.

With Portis and Betts in front of him on the depth chart, Cartwright doesn't get many carries. But when he does, he seems to make the best of the opportunities.

For instance, in the 24-9 win over St. Louis that sparked a five-game winning streak and lifted the Redskins into the playoffs last year, Cartwright carried nine times for a career-high 118 yards, including a career-high 52-yard run.

In Sunday's game at the Meadowlands, Cartwright and Danny Smith's coverage units need to so a solid job of containing Giants return specialist Chad Morton, the former Redskin.

Morton returned six kicks for 162 yards, with a long of 41, when Washington outscored the New Yorkers 35-20 at FedExField last year.

Minnesota's Koren Robinson (26.0), the Redskins' Betts (25.9) and the Giants' Willie Ponder (25.9) led the NFC in kick return average last year.

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