Washington Redskins Must Rely on More Than Alfred Morris and RG3 in Running Game
While there may be questions about the consistency and quality of their wide receivers, there is no doubt the Washington Redskins are fully loaded in the running game.
That dynamic trio produced 220 yards on the ground against the Chicago Bears in Week 7. It was a formula that can serve as a blueprint for the rest of the season.
The key was sharing out the carries between Morris and Helu. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and head coach Mike Shanahan split 30 rushing attempts between the pair.
Helu certainly made a difference, but his success was limited to the red zone. He only averaged a mere 3.7 yards per carry, but it was how he was used that was most intriguing.
Helu's speed clearly caught the Bears off guard inside the 20. They would have expected another dose of Morris closer to the goal line.
It was a classic example of how the Redskins can smartly make use of their deep stable of running backs. It is about more than just rotating to keep players fresh or choosing a workhorse based on who has the hot hand.
It is about showing defenses something different and taking advantage of matchups. For instance, against the Bears, Helu clearly benefited from entering for the final phase of long drives, after Morris' bruising style had worn out Chicago's defensive front.
The Bears were also an ideal team to unleash speed against in the red zone. Their injury woes at defensive tackle, which include losing Henry Melton and Nate Collins for the season, mean the Bears aren't well-stocked for goal-line defense.
Quick penetration from converted ends playing tackle might have wrecked an inside runner like Morris or Evan Royster. But Helu's acceleration can quickly take him away from such pursuit.
Using him inside the 20 won't work every game. But it was a good wrinkle to throw at a specific opponent.
That is the advantage Washington has with their diverse ground attack. They can throw so much at defenses and find the right formula to challenge any opponent.
For example, the famed zone stretch play, the staple run of the offense, has struggled at times this season.
Enter Royster, a back described as "effective as an inside runner" by the now defunct Pro Football Weekly.
The inside zone play can be an effective changeup in this stretch-led rushing scheme. Simply put, the inside zone is defined by double-teams inside.
While on the stretch, O-linemen slant one way and create double-teams on the next man over, the inside zone works in a more condensed fashion.
Normally on the stretch play, Morris, Helu or Royster, would read the actions of the defensive end on the edge the play is being run toward.
But on the inside zone, the runner's reads are different, as Smart Football's Chris Brown explains:
On the inside zone the runner aims for the outside hip of the offensive guard. Now, his read can vary by team. Some teams have him read that three technique defensive tackle, while others have him read the middle or “Mike” linebacker. In both cases the idea is for him to find the “vertical” crease — either straight playside off the guard’s hip or backside on a cutback.
The play began with Ben Tate in the backfield. The Chargers played their 3-4 base defense, but with a 1-gap line.
That meant Tate's read was end Kendall Reyes, shown in the yellow circle, who was lined up as a 3-technique in the B-gap between Houston's right tackle and guard.
The other key to the play would be an inside double-team on nose tackle Cam Thomas, shown in the red circle.
Tate would base his run on the actions of Reyes. If he saw Reyes slanting inside, Tate would bounce the play off right tackle.
However, if he read Reyes taking an outside move, what the Texans hoped he would do, Tate would cut the play back to the inside.
That is just what happened. Right guard Brandon Brooks (79) got Reyes going laterally, so Tate hit the cutback lane into the middle.
That lane was secured by the double-team on Thomas. Tate completed the play for an eight-yard gain.
Royster has plenty of experience running this kind of zone play. In his rookie season in 2011, Royster produced his first 100-yard rushing effort in the pros against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 16.
He rushed for 132 yards on 19 carries, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. The key to his success was running the inside zone.
In this example, Royster made the same reads Tate would make against the Chargers. His read was the 3-technique tackle shown in the yellow circle.
The Redskins would secure any cutback lane that developed inside by double-teaming the shaded nose tackle, shown in the red circle.
At the snap, double-teams on the inside pushed the 3-technique away from the middle. That let Royster cut it back inside where the nose tackle had been cleared out of the way.
Royster would gain eight simple yards through the heart of Minnesota's defensive front.
Running more inside zones is a great way for the Redskins to show defenses different things on the ground and vary the pace of their rushing attack.
It can act as a great complement to the damage done on stretch plays, something Brown highlighted in the same article:
Once the defense begins flowing too fast to the sideline, coaches typically dial-up the inside zone. The rules are the same — covered and uncovered — except this is more of a drive block as the aiming point for the running back is inside. The play often results in a cutback if the defense is flowing fast for the outside zone, but the difference between the outside zone is one of technique, not assignment.
Changing the pace is something that is very important to Washington's running game. Kyle Shanahan is keen on using Helu that way and players like fullback Darrel Young also see the advantages of contrasting styles.
FoxNews.com, citing the Associated Press, quotes Young endorsing the benefits of altering the pace:
It's great. It's a change of pace from every angle. You see Roy on more third downs and passing situations and he runs the ball. Alfred's being Alfred. Robert's being Robert. It's just three different threats.
Add Royster to that mix and the Redskins won't just be changing the pace by adding the greater breakaway speed that Helu possesses.
Of course, mixing in different runners requires an appreciation of balance and an instinct for timing in the play-calling. The most important aspect of that could be avoiding a rotation that does too much to disturb the rhythm of Morris.
This is something The Washington Post's Mike Jones noted is evident in the way Kyle Shanahan's views his running backs:
Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said he expected that type of well-rounded production out of Helu, who started five games as a rookie but missed most of last season with injury. The coach would like to get Helu more involved in Washington’s offense, but added that doing so is easier said than done.
The coordinator still regards Morris as the team’s best option at running back and views him as a workhorse back, who gets better with the more carries he gets.
It is true that Morris is Washington's best zone runner. He is the one with the knack for making his reads quickly and decisively attacking the cutback lanes.
The younger Shanahan also knows the virtue of a workhorse back. He saw his father win two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos on the strength of Terrell Davis dominating on the ground.
But things are different for the 2013 Redskins. For one thing, those Broncos teams did not possess the strength in depth at the running back position that Shanahan's current team boasts.
They also did not feature a quarterback who was as explosive a run threat as Griffin, even though Hall of Famer John Elway had been an excellent runner earlier in his career.
To rely too heavily on Griffin and Morris is dangerous for Washington. There is no doubt that when Griffin runs well he makes the offense more dangerous.
But that always comes with the caveat that more running naturally increases the chances of Griffin suffering another serious injury.
The Redskins already know how much easier it is for teams to slow their offense down when they are able to focus more on Morris.
If they want a template for how to make their abundance of backfield weapons really work to their advantage, the Redskins should reference Shanahan's third and final great Broncos team.
That was the 2005 version that went 13-3 and made it to the AFC Championship Game. Their strength was a three-pronged running back rotation.
Mike Anderson led the way with 239 carries for 1,014 yards. But he was ably supported by Tatum Bell's 173 attempts for 921 yards.
Ron Dayne supplemented their efforts with 53 rushes for 270 yards. As if that wasn't enough, the Broncos also got 151 rushing yards from mobile quarterback Jake Plummer.
That offense ranked second in rushing yards and attempts and third in touchdowns. The point is the Broncos used what they had. They got everybody involved, and the Redskins should do the same.
Griffin and Morris are still the one-two punch that will scare opponents and key success. But by changing the pace with the contrasting strengths of Helu and Royster, Washington can make their running game so much more than just Griffin and Morris.
All screen shots courtesy of ESPN, Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.
All statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.
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