Morris initially suffered thanks to defenses not facing the threat of a fully mobile Robert Griffin III. With the dual-threat quarterback still recovering from major knee surgery, teams were able to focus more on Morris.
They attacked his favored zone stretch runs, and the result was a single 100-yard game out of five and just two games where he averaged over five yards a carry.
But in the five games since, Morris has topped 90 yards three times and posted two games with over 100 yards. This prolific production has come even on a reduced workload, as The Washington Post's Mike Jones has highlighted:
Morris this season has proven an ability to do more with less, but Redskins coaches have maintained that their goal is to continue to feature a run-heavy offensive attack. Morris’s carries have gone down this season, however, and his coaches have blamed Morris’s limited workload on slow starts by the entire offense, which have forced them to play from behind which forced them to pass more.
Writing before Week 11's games and after back-to-back 100-yard efforts, Jones noted how Morris has become explosive with the carries he has received:
Despite what had been a reduced role, Morris had remained effective. Although he is on pace to rush for fewer yards than last season’s total of 1,613, he has actually shown improvement.
This season, Morris leads the league’s running backs at 5.2 yards per carry. Morris’s total of 825 yards are third-most behind LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch despite the fact that his 159 carries are seventh-most in the league. Morris also boasts an NFL-best eight runs of 20 yards or more.
Last season, Morris ranked ninth in the NFL at 4.8 yards per carry and had nine rushes for 20 yards or more. He ran the ball 335 times (third-most in the NFL). Morris this season is on pace to gain 1,466 yards on 282 rushing attempts.
So Morris is better in year two, and the numbers support it. Three factors have made him more effective.
The first is greater speed. Morris is running faster and making even quicker cuts than he did as a rookie.
That quick one-cut style is essential in head coach Mike Shanahan's zone-based rushing schemes. But a big difference is how much more elusive Morris is once he gets into the open field.
While he still routinely powers through the first tackler, Morris has become more shifty and adept at making people miss.
Finally, as the offense has begun to feature Morris more in recent games, Shanahan has used multiple-tight end sets and unbalanced lines to overwhelm defensive fronts and create bigger holes.
All three of these things were on display in a trio of Morris' best runs from his last three games. The first example comes from Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game where Morris produced 93 yards on 22 carries.
The play began with the Washington offense facing 2nd-and-1 in Eagles territory late in the second quarter. As he did for much of the game, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan deployed 13 personnel, three tight ends and one running back.
One tight end, Niles Paul, aligned on the left, while Logan Paulsen and Jordan Reed created an overload on the right side. Morris would run the stretch play behind this overload.
The presence of three tight ends would make it easier for the Redskins to get blockers to the second level of the defense, vital in the Shanahan zone system.
Guards Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester would move to the linebacker level along with Paulsen.
As is now typical of Morris, he made his cut almost as soon as he received the handoff and the blocking had shifted.
That quick move put him through the line and the second-level blockers helped spring him for a big play.
In trademark fashion, Morris made the first player to hit him pay. He flattened the tackler and dragged him for an extra couple of yards.
Extra blockers, coupled with quicker cuts and greater speed, are freeing Morris for more big plays in his second season.
The week before against the Minnesota Vikings, Morris achieved a season high in both carries, 26, and yards, 139. Multiple-tight end sets again played a major role in Morris' biggest gains.
At the start of the third quarter, the Redskins faced 2nd-and-8 and went with 21 personnel, two tight ends and one running back.
Paulsen aligned next to left tackle Trent Williams, while Reed was motioned into an H-Back role, as a blocker in the backfield.
The two tight ends would combine to overload one edge of Minnesota's defense. Along the interior, Williams and Lichtensteiger would create a double-team on the inside.
Morris made his cut behind this double-team.
Morris was soon in the open field, running at the second and third levels of the defense.
That meant it was time for another trademark Morris finish to a run, crashing into three tacklers and still managing to spin for additional yardage.
Despite usually being an outside zone running team, this was a classic example of an inside zone run. Plays like this take greater advantage of Morris' power between the tackles.
But that is not the only wrinkle the Shanahans have used to create big plays for their star runner. One week earlier, Morris gained 121 yards on 25 carries, sparking an overtime win over the San Diego Chargers.
One of his best runs came on the third play of overtime, from a cleverly designed counter.
The Shanahans again moved Reed into the backfield as an H-Back, but flexed Pauslen out into the slot in a bunch with wide receiver Joshua Morgan.
All three would make key blocks to open holes on the right for Morris, who would start left and then reverse field to the right.
The trap was set by the way the O-line shifted to the left the way they do for the team's signature stretch run.
Look how Morris planted his back foot firmly to set up his quick cut. Planting the foot and accelerating off the cut is one of the vital attributes the Shanahans seek in successful zone runners.
Once Morris had cut back to the right, Reed, Morgan and Paulsen cleared out a huge hole for him to attack. Morris was given the responsibility of beating the defender in the open field.
This is where he showcased the greater elusiveness since his rookie season. He faked out defensive back Johnny Patrick with a move one way and then another.
That shiftiness made Patrick miss, but there was still time for Morris punish a defender. He slammed into deep safety Eric Weddle and carried him for some extra yards, completing a 19-yard gain.
This play encapsulated all the reasons why Morris is better in year two. The Shanahans are getting more creative with formations and more expansive with the type of runs they call.
Morris is faster and more elusive, but still as powerful as he was as a rookie.
The combination of varied scheming and Morris' attributes for the zone system is a potent mix that has put the player second in the rushing charts and given the team the top rushing attack in the NFL.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports, NFL Network, CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.
All statistics via NFL.com.
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