Alfred Morris made another strong claim to upset the field and win the starting running back job with the Washington Redskins. However, as impressive as the 2012 sixth-round pick was, veteran Tim Hightower, returning from injury, did enough to remind coaches he could still lead the way in the backfield.
The performances of Hightower and Morris against the Indianapolis Colts add yet more intrigue to the crowded and intense competition for carries in the Redskins' running game. With four running backs eager to become the next star created by Mike Shanahan's famous zone scheme, every carry has huge significance with the regular season drawing closer.
That fact certainly hasn't been lost on Morris during preseason. The ex-Florida Atlantic star has looked like a natural fit for the zone-running system in three impressive showings.
Against the Colts, Morris again displayed the knack for quickly identifying the cutback lanes—that is crucial in this rushing scheme—on 14 carries for 107 yards and a score. He is a sharp and decisive one-cut runner who plays with the power to batter defenses and control the clock.
Morris has wasted no time showcasing genuine workhorse capability. Being able to rely on a featured runner will be vital with rookie Robert Griffin III under center. Morris looks like he can provide 20-plus carries in any game.
However, the rookie may have to fight off a determined veteran, if Hightower's comeback cameo is anything to go by. The 26-year-old's return from the ACL injury that wrecked his 2011 season saw him restricted mostly to third-down duty.
What that did was allow Hightower to showcase the skills that make him particularly useful to the offense, specifically his pass blocking. On Griffin's second-quarter touchdown pass to Santana Moss, it was Hightower who maintained the integrity of the pocket by fending off a slot blitz with a solid block.
Hightower quickly recognized the scheme and stood up the free rusher with a stout hit. Protection will be a key attribute this season, and having a backfield blocker like Hightower will be a massive boost for Griffin.
As a runner, Hightower took only one carry to show that he is making a good recovery from his injury and that he can still make plays for this ground game. Taking an inside handoff on 3rd-and-2, Hightower ran a sweep to the left.
He quickly accelerated around the corner, showing that the ACL issue hasn't diminished his initial burst, or general speed. He also seems to have lost none of his upper body strength.
In terms of decision-making, Hightower appeared a step slower than Morris, who seems to do everything quickly. However, a little sluggishness is to be expected after so long on the shelf.
It will be fascinating to see the battle between youth and experience rage on in the Redskins' backfield this season. Morris is making it very difficult for the coaches to look past him, even when injured duo Roy Helu and Evan Royster are healthy.
However, competition from a trio of eager youths could also motivate Hightower to produce career-best form. It's a great dilemma to have on the eve of the new season.