When he was hired as head coach shortly after the end of the 2009-2010 season, Mike Shanahan was supposed to bring his patented zone running scheme to the Washington Redskins and revitalize Clinton Portis and benefit from a supposedly rejuvenated Larry Johnson. After four weeks, Portis is out with an injury, Johnson isn't on the roster anymore and the Redskins are averaging a paltry 98 yards on the ground.
Enter Ryan Torain and the beginning of a new chapter in Washington's rushing offense.
As far back as training camp, many fans were pegging Torain as the future for the Redskins backfield under the Shanahan offensive scheme. After a fair preseason showing, Torain landed on the practice squad and Keiland Williams was on the 53-man roster. Cue Johnson's exit and Portis' injury and Torain now finds himself as the Redskins starter heading into their meeting with Green Bay.
The Packers are ranked 24th in the NFL in rush defense and giving up 5.2 yards per carry, but have only allowed two touchdowns on the ground and have yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.
Beyond just this week, Torain stands to serve as a replacement for the aging and deteriorating Portis. He made his presence known against the Eagles with 70 yards and a touchdown against the spotty Philadelphia run defense. He averaged just 3.9 yard per carry, but for his first real taste of action in the regular season it is nothing to scoff at.
Torain is the perfect running back for the Shanahan system, more so than Portis in recent years.
At Arizona State, Torain started 19 games and rushed for 1782 yards at 5.4 yards per carry and 12 touchdowns. He also caught 25 passes for 305 yards and five touchdowns. He is big, he can run, and he can catch. The one area of concern is his pass-blocking ability. Portis was the designated pass-blocking back, and was one of the best at it.
Pass protection is a concern going up against the Packers this week, who have Clay Matthews and his league leading seven sacks to their credit. That would be more of a Donovan McNabb problem though.
The Shanahan zone blocking scheme stresses one cut running. Dancing around behind the line and trying to reverse the field is how Johnson earned his walking papers. There are going to be runs of two and three yards, but it is working up to the bigger runs for first downs and touchdowns.
Torain is a quick but patient runner who has excelled at finding the holes that the offensive line has made for him. At 6'1", 225 pounds, Torain can also run through tackles if his blockers fail to open a hole. Expect him to get around 15 touches per game to start, but his performance will likely determine his workload each week.
His size also lends itself to more carries in the redzone, which even Portis was able to find success in, though it did take him a number of goal line carries to break the plane.
Torain's rise to starter is not without question. Some wonder if it is a precursor to Portis' exit in the near future.
Portis is at that age where running backs start to deteriorate. He has a ton of carries on his body to go along with a recent concussion, separated shoulder, and now a groin separation. And those are just the injuries that were deemed serious enough to keep him out of the lineup.
He had some good seasons, but it is safe to say Portis will never be a 1,000-yard back in the NFL.
Torain won't have it easy as a starter, as the Redskins offensive line is in a state of flux with the injury to rookie left tackle Trent Williams, the poor play of Stephon Heyer in relief of Williams, the odd handling of left guards Derrick Dockery and Kory Lichtensteiger, and the inconsistent blocking of fullback Mike Sellers has been on full display.
Too many problems and not enough time to fix them before Torain takes his first snaps as a Redskins starter.
The real test for Torain will be his ability to hold up over the course of an entire season, or in this case the 12 games left on the schedule. He already has an ACL injury on one knee suffered in 2008, and an injury shortened senior season at Arizona State.
Not a huge concern but something to consider, especially given his ability to absorb contact and the difficulty that goes into tackling him.
Only time will tell what Torain really means for the Redskins. Is he a season substitute or a legitimate heir to the illustrious Shanahan 1,000-yard club? We'll see first hand which seems more likely when the Torain and the Redskins face the Packers in the friendly confines of FedEx Field.