What Alfred Morris' Revival Means for RG3 and Washington Redskins Offense

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2014

Nov 23, 2014; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris (46) stands on the field before the start of the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Robert Griffin III doesn't have a lot to be happy about at the moment. The Washington Redskins quarterback is currently beset with criticism from fans and media so widespread it's turning into a feeding frenzy. He also doesn't seem to have the sympathy or confidence of his head coach.

But amid the contradictory blend of self-doubt and defiance Griffin must be experiencing, part of him at least should be jumping for joy. It's the part of him that saw running back Alfred Morris return to his dominant best in Week 12. Somewhere in his mind, Griffin ought to know the star runner's revival offers him an escape clause.

A productive Morris means a more balanced Washington offense. That means a better Griffin, one able to challenge undermanned coverage schemes behind overloaded fronts dedicated to stopping the run.

Griffin didn't exactly make the most of that during Washington's closely fought 17-13 road loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Despite Morris rushing for 125 yards and a touchdown to keep the San Fran D honest, Griffin could only muster 106 yards through the air.

Griffin must take advantage of Morris' return to form.
Griffin must take advantage of Morris' return to form.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
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That wasted Morris' first 100-yard game since Week 10 of last season. It wasted the big-play capability he brought back to a running game that has lay dormant for most of this season.

Against the Niners, Morris erupted for a season-long run of 30 yards on Washington's first offensive play of the third quarter. Earlier, he'd produced a 22-yard scamper during the opening period.

Those are the kind of gains this team should expect from its zone-based running game. They are also the kind of gains that split coverage and create easy throwing lanes for Griffin.

A crystal-clear example of that came late in the third quarter. Morris began the drive with an 11-yard burst off tackle.

That set up the 49ers for one of the Redskins' favorite concepts: a play-action pass to target a crossing pattern behind the linebacker level.

With Morris channeling his own inner beast mode, inexperienced 49ers inside 'backers Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite were getting drawn to the run on nearly every play.

They became very susceptible to play-action fakes, as you can see here:

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Both Wilhoite and Borland zeroed in on Morris. Notice how much of a void their initial actions left behind them and in front of the safeties.

Even with his ongoing accuracy and timing issues, not even Griffin could miss that space. He certainly didn't when he hit Jackson in stride, over the head over a stranded Wilhoite:

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A strong Morris run preceding a big play off play action is the foundation of everything Washington does offensively, as ESPN 980 reporter Chris Russell noted:

That's what makes Morris' personal revival great news for Griffin. It sets up more opportunities to target the kind of routes Jackson ran here. The quarterback also hit Garcon for over 20 yards on a similar play earlier in the game.

Targeting quick-hit crossing patterns is one of the few things Griffin tends to do very well as a passer. In fact, he's generally more effective when he gets the chance to play quickly and instinctively.

Give Griffin something to think about and he soon encounters trouble:

But when Morris is running well, Griffin simply has less of a defense to read. That's the central concept behind this offense.

It was the basic tenant of the system Mike Shanahan installed back in 2010, way before Griffin ever donned the burgundy and gold. It's a scheme with one inviolate principle: Everything comes off the run.

It really is that simple. The run is established to make the play-action credible. That combination helps create moving pockets.

Finding himself in greater space, a quarterback can then target crossing receivers or even mix in the deep ball. The reads are simple because fewer receivers are needed to challenge an undermanned secondary when a defense is playing eight in the box.

A successful rushing attack is still the foundation of a system Shanahan first installed nearly five seasons ago.
A successful rushing attack is still the foundation of a system Shanahan first installed nearly five seasons ago.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

That last point is key. Many of Washington's best pass plays come from one staple concept: the hi-lo route combination.

It's a defining feature of every West Coast-style passing game. Shanahan ran it, and so does current head coach Jay Gruden. Simply put, it's one receiver running vertical while another crosses underneath.

Run from a standard Pro-style set (two wide receivers, two running backs, one tight end), it gives a quarterback easy downfield reads to make.

But for things to really work, the running game has to click. That's what gets the linebackers attacking downhill, instead of bailing into the intermediate zones and slant lanes. That gives the underneath crossers extra space.

There's even more room when the vertical receiver runs his coverage deep. This essentially splits the second level of a defense.

All of that sounds great in theory. But it's only possible in practice when the running game is cooking. None of it will work for Griffin and his offense if Morris doesn't produce.

There are a couple of mitigating factors behind why Morris produced so much in San Francisco. For one thing, he'd been building toward a big game for a few weeks.

Zac Boyer of The Washington Times detailed Morris' progress since Week 8:

Washington’s running game struggled early in the season before taking noticeable strides in its previous two games, after the return of quarterback Robert Griffin III. Morris ran for 92 yards in a loss to the Vikings on Nov. 2 and 96 yards last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Griffin's threat, perceived or otherwise, as a runner was always going to help Morris. But he was also aided by going up against a 49ers defense missing stud inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

San Fran is still seventh against the run, but clearly not as formidable and stingy as they are with the heart of their defense healthy.

The good news for Morris, the Washington offense and particularly Griffin is the team's next opponent. The Indianapolis Colts are 17th against the run, giving up 109.9 yards per game.

Two weeks ago, the Colts were mauled on the ground by the New England Patriots. Former practice squad member Jonas Gray powered his way for 201 yards and four touchdowns.

Gray's success two weeks ago in Indianapolis, bodes well for Morris in Week 13.
Gray's success two weeks ago in Indianapolis, bodes well for Morris in Week 13.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Morris ought to be rubbing his hands together in glee at the prospect of going up against the Indy defense. If he repeats what he did in Week 12, the game will become much easier for Griffin.

Gruden noted how Morris helped open up the playbook for his quarterback in San Francisco, per Boyer:

Alfred has been running really hard the last few weeks. I really want to commend Alfred, the way he’s running and his ball security has been excellent. It helps our play action and our boot calls.

Griffin didn't take full advantage in the Bay Area. But he must make sure he maximizes the Morris effect this week.

All statistics via NFL.com.

Screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.