In those five games, Hightower rushed for 321 yards on 84 carries. His 3.8 yards per carry average was decent, but he did show the willingness to carry the load as a true backfield workhorse.
Hightower had 25 carries in the season-opener against the New York Giants. One week later, he added another 20 against the Arizona Cardinals. His ability to handle the bulk of the carries is impressive, but a closer look at the numbers shows some key elements are missing from Hightower's game.
One of the issues Hightower faced was becoming comfortable with the sudden change-of-direction skills needed in head coach Mike Shanahan's zone running game. The signature play of the scheme is the outside zone stretch.
Unfortunately, Hightower often seemed to take the "outside" and "stretch" parts of that description a little too literally. He was often content to continue ploughing a path towards the sideline, only turning the play up the field at its widest point.
This led to many three or four-yard gains, but did not generate many of the big runs the play is designed to create. This could have been because Hightower was still learning the system, specifically when to anticipate and attack the cutback lanes that the zone system exploits. Hightower was too patient and his numbers suffered.
Ironically, his final game of the season—a Week 5 loss to the Carolina Panthers—was Hightower's best effort as a zone-runner. He ran for 88 yards on 17 carries, at a season-best 5.2 yards per carry.
Hightower was more decisive and willing to trust his eyes and cutback into the middle of the defense to make a big play. The problem is that his season-ending ACL injury struck in this game and raises serious doubts about his ability to be the featured back.
The sudden burst a zone runner needs after identifying an opening could be lost to Hightower after such a serious injury. This could leave him relying too much on his 6'0", 220-pound frame and natural power to get yards.
That would mean more minimal gains and less of the big play threat the Redskins' ground schemes rely on.
Many, including this writer, have pointed to Hightower's other skills as justification for starting him.
He is an excellent pass-blocker and a crafty backfield receiver. That would be useful to rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III and supplementing pass protection could be vital for a suspect line.
However, those complementary talents should be used only as a bonus to the ability to move the chains as a consistent runner.
Dan Graziano of ESPN recently reported that Hightower understands he is in a competition for the starting job.
His chances have not been helped by missing training camp time as his knee continues to heal. Indeed, Shanahan himself has identified health as the vital attribute for his featured back, according to Rich Campbell of the Washington Times.
Hightower has the skill set of an every down back and the Carolina game showed what he can be in this system. Shanahan will have to decide if that performance is evidence that Hightower has mastered the requirements of zone running and if that is worth gambling on his fitness as the team's starter.