JOY AND PAIN
Redskins’ ground game hits low point against Panthers
Inside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a shaggy-haired four-year starter for Michigan State crouched and waited for the horn. Kirk Cousins was set to run his 40-yard dash for scouts and executives at the 2012 NFL Combine, an event filled with often meaningless measurements and overexposure.
Cousins lumbered along to finish at 4.93 seconds. He was more than a halfa-second behind the leader, a springloaded QB from Baylor named Robert Griffin III. Cousins beat out only two other quarterbacks, and narrowly — by .01 seconds — was ahead of the swiftest offensive lineman. And yet, this is the man who led the Washington Redskins in rushing Monday night.
Cousins’ out-of-desperation 11 yards rushing against the Carolina Panthers was one more than running back Chris Thompson and three more than starting running back Robert Kelley, who went in reverse more often than forward during the primetime embarrassment. Kelley averaged 0.9 yards per carry, or approximately half the length of his body should he just fall forward, helping the Redskins running game lurch back to being a head shake.
“It was a problem [Monday] night, and as an offensive coordinator, when you’re calling plays, and you call a running play that’s a gain of one or a loss of one and the back is hit before he even gets the ball in his hands, it’s hard to call another run,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said Tuesday. “But sometimes we need to force the issue. We have got to target the runs better, we have got to do a better job of getting [Kelley] going. Because it takes pressure off the quarterback.
“The line enjoys it — blocking run game, I believe — and it opens up a lot of our passes. When we’re hitting on
all cylinders, it’s because of our running game and our play-action. It’s not because we’re dropping back straight drop-back and throwing seven-step drops and five-step drops down the field all the time. It’s because we have a good running game, our bootlegs are off of them, and our core play-actions are very, very good. So when we become one-dimensional, it’s true drop-back, and that’s not the way we’re built. That’s not the way many teams are built. It’s very difficult for any quarterback to succeed in that type of offense.”
This throw-happy approach from the Redskins was prevalent to start the season. They averaged 14.5 carries per game in their 0-2 start and 44.5 passes per game in those two weeks. In Week 3, the choice between run and pass almost leveled. Cousins threw 36 times in the season’s first win and Washington ran the ball 30 times.
Monday, Carolina’s starting running back, Jonathan Stewart, out-rushed Washington by 103 yards. The Redskins trailed most of the night, but the margin in the first half was not one that typically trumps teams from rushing the ball. After the first quarter, Washington trailed 10-3. At halftime, it was down just four points, 13-9, following a missed extra point by kicker Dustin Hopkins. Yet, offensive coordinator Sean McVay rarely opted for the run, stuck between the allure and moderate success of passing versus trying to redefine a rushing attack that stalled in its initial effort.
“We didn’t have any attempts,” left tackle Trent Williams said Monday night. “We had only 11 attempts. We dropped back  times. Down basically the whole game. Not in position to run the ball. They did a good job when we did run the ball. So, obviously it’s tough to get it going when you have 11 attempts in four quarters.”
Williams was named to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl on Tuesday. Right guard Brandon Scherff was selected for his first. Yet, the line could not handle the capable Carolina run defense on Monday, adding a putrid week in what has been a four-week swoon when trying to run the ball. Kelley ran for a career-high 137 yards in Week 11 against the Green Bay Packers. In the last four games combined, Kelley has rushed for 171 yards. Kelley explained Monday’s failure as the team not “clicking” that night.
Saturday’s opponent is not as stern as Carolina. The Chicago Bears are 23rd in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. The forecast predicts a cool and cloudy setting for the game, though not eyeball-freezing cold that can permeate the upper Midwest in late December.
“No matter what the weather is, you’ve got to run the ball,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be a balanced offense. You get one-dimensional, it’s easy for people to figure you out. We can help ourselves by staying ahead of the chains and not put ourselves in bad positions.”
Cousins is accustomed to that type of weather. He was born in Barrington, Illinois, which is a little more than an hour from Soldier Field, and played his high school football in Holland, Michigan. No one in Holland expected him to lead an NFL team in rushing yards on Monday Night Football. But, he did, producing as damning a statement about the Redskins’ current rushing attack as their could be.
Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed lays on the grass hurting after taking a hit on his already-injured shoulder by Carolina Panthers safety Tre Boston on Monday. The injury was one snapshot of a season of ups and downs the tight end. Reed’s season has been filled with highs such as a Pro Bowl selection to the lows, like Monday’s ejection.
Washington Redskins running back Robert Kelley is stopped by four Carolina Panthers on Monday. Kelley averaged less than a yard per carry in the loss.