What’s the rush? SPORTS
Redskins look to revive the ground game
When Scot McCloughan and Jay Gruden joined forces last winter, they determined the identity they wanted the Washington Redskins to take on: big, strong, physical, punishing. With a muddled quarterback situation competing in a pass-happy league, the general manager and head coach determined that an offense built on an authoritative running game could succeed.
So the Redskins drafted hefty offensive linemen and an imposing running back, Matt Jones, to add to Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams, three-time 1,000yard rusher Alfred Morris and the two big offensive line prospects they had selected the year before.
For the first two weeks of the regular season, McCloughan and Gruden got the smash-mouth football they sought. The Redskins gashed the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams for 161 and 182 rushing yards, respectively. One week the veteran Morris carried his team with 121 yards on 26 carries while Jones added 28 yards on six carries. The following week, the new kid led the way with 123 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries while Morris complemented him with 59 yards on 18 carries.
But since then, that production has
fizzled, as carries have been split more evenly among Morris, Jones and speedster Chris Thompson. With coaches unable, or unwilling, to settle on one lead back, the Redskins appear to have ambiguity where they hoped to have identity. The trio has mustered just 88.6 rushing yards a game in the past three games, barely more than half what it had in the first two contests, and Washington’s offense has lacked the balance quarterback Kirk Cousins and his receivers need to succeed.
“We don’t really have any set, ‘We want to get Alfred these carries, or we want to get Matt these,’ ” Gruden said. “There are certain ones that we have in our playbook where we want to have Matt or Chris carry, and some we’d rather have Alfred carry. That’s the toughest thing we’re trying to manage right now. . . . I’m not trying to play Matt more because I don’t like Alfred. Hopefully that’s not coming across. Hopefully Alfred doesn’t feel that way.” Time and shares
Originally, Jones was intended to complement Morris. Redskins coaches and officials praised Morris’s body of work and said Jones would help keep his teammate fresh and more productive late in games.
Although Morris and his coaches agree that he is a “rhythm runner” who gets better as games progress, his first three seasons showed his yards per carry declined from 5.2 when he had between 11 and 15 carries to 4.2 between 16 and 20 to 3.1 with 21 or more.
Gruden and McCloughan also believed the 6-foot-1, 231-pound Jones would be the better fit when the offense shifted to power-blocking schemes and away from zone blocking, where the 5-10, 224-pound Morris thrives.
Things went according to plan in Week 1. But the roles reversed in Week 2. Morris again got the start, but Jones took over because coaches believed they identified weaknesses in the Rams’ defense that played to the rookie’s strengths.
Neither back played well in Week 3 at New York. After the Giants jumped to an early lead, coaches abandoned the run. Morris had just six carries for nine yards, while Jones managed 38 yards on 11 rushes, plus a fumble near the goal line.
Though coaches said Jones’s fumble wasn’t the reason, Thompson took over as the No. 2 back the next week against the Philadelphia Eagles. Morris remained “the lead dog,” as Gruden put it, but he struggled to get going. Through three quarters, he mustered just 1.8 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Thompson ripped off a 42-yard run on his first carry, then squeezed out another 11 yards on five carries. Morris finally found his rhythm in the fourth quarter, rushing for 40 yards on five carries, helping to pace the winning drive.
Coaches acknowledge that Morris, who declined multiple interview requests for this story, needs to get his touches to be his best, but they’re not willing to forgo the big-gain/power threat that Jones offers, or the home run speed threat of Thompson.
“We just haven’t had good looks for [Morris]. It’s not that we’re giving up on him or anything like that,” Gruden said. “We’re trying to keep the backs fresh, and we feel like Matt has shown enough where he deserves to take some reps from him, not because we think Alfred is struggling. It’s just because we think a lot of Matt, also. When you have two good players at one position, it’s hard to keep them both happy, but you want to keep them both fresh.”
Gruden has said that running backs coach Randy Jordan helps determine in-game substitutions. Jordan declined an interview request, deferring to Gruden.
Said Jones: “I’m a young guy coming in. I’m just playing my role, doing what we need to do to win games. Obviously, as a running back, you want to get in the game, get into a rhythm, into a flow, because as you’re running and get into a flow, it’s hard for defenses to stop you. But, splitting time, I have no problem with it.” Getting a fair shot?
Based on the handling of the running backs through five games, some observers suspect that Morris, who is in the last year of his rookie contract, is being phased out, and unjustly so.
“What I see is a typical situation where people want to make the guy that they drafted the guy before they worry about the guy that they don’t think is very sexy,” former Redskins running back Brian Mitchell, now a radio host for ESPN 980 and analyst for CSN Mid-Atlantic, said. “Alfred just churns out yards. He’s not very shifty; he’s not very sexy. He just makes plays. I don’t have a problem with that.”
Mitchell believes other factors have hurt the rushing attack: “For me the question is this: Is he gaining one yard, two yards, three yards because they have eight men in the box and I haven’t done anything to back them off ? Or, is he getting one yard, two yards, three yards because there’s a wide-open hole and he’s not getting through it? ”
Indeed, opposing teams have played safeties closer to the line to assist linebackers and linemen because they anticipate the run-first approach. (The absence of injured deep threat DeSean Jackson also has given safeties more freedom to play closer to the line). This adjustment makes for fewer cutback lanes and holes for any running back to get through.
A play-action attack is one possible solution, but those plays have been scarce in Washington’s Gruden-led offense.
Washington boasted one of the top rushing attacks in the NFL in 2012 and 2013, when the Mike Shanahan-led Redskins used a healthy dose of the playaction. Of Washington’s 518 pass attempts in 2012, 36.8 percent were play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The next season, Shanahan’s Redskins used the play-action threat on 24.9 percent of their pass plays. But since Gruden has taken over, the number has dipped to 16.9 percent (106 of 629 pass plays) last season and 16.2 percent so far this season.
Whatever the reason for the rushing malaise, Gruden said the handling of the backs and divvying up of their carries remain a “feel thing” that coaches are trying to solve in hopes of restoring the offense’s identity.
“We’ll keep grinding with it,” he said. “We’ll see.”
Redskins tailback Alfred Morris, here taking a handoff from Kirk Cousins, has seen his number of carries decrease since the first two games.