What’s the rush? SPORTS

Red­skins look to re­vive the ground game

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY MIKE JONES

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.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Red­skins tail­back Al­fred Mor­ris, here tak­ing a hand­off from Kirk Cousins, has seen his num­ber of car­ries de­crease since the first two games.

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