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3rd-Down Running Back Still a Question Mark for Washington Redskins

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistSeptember 4, 2015

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 29: Running back Chris Thompson #25 of the Washington Redskins carries the ball in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on August 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/ Getty Images)
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

What do you do when neither of your candidates for the third-down running back role is particularly inspiring? For the Washington Redskins, the answer may be as simple as just giving the job to the last man standing.

Entering its final preseason game, a 17-16 home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, finding the right backfield option for third downs was one of the few priorities on Washington's to-do list.

So it was a great opportunity for both Chris Thompson and Trey Williams to prove themselves. Yet neither made a very convincing case.

In fact, both runners merely reminded Washington's coaches of their respective shortcomings.

For Thompson, that meant being pretty close to solid in all areas but far from spectacular in any. The fifth-round pick from 2013's draft lacked power and imagination on too many of his runs. These flaws were most obvious on plays designed to attack the interior of the Jags defense.

Of course, Thompson's core strength as a ball-carrier is supposed to be his speed, specifically his lateral quickness. Indeed, he did show this quality to convert a 3rd-and-3 play in the first quarter.

Thompson failed to show much explosiveness on the ground.
Thompson failed to show much explosiveness on the ground.Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
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It was a pitch outside that let Thompson attack the edge. He niftily shifted around the corner to keep the chains moving.

Later in the quarter, the onetime Florida State pocket-edition dynamo displayed good patience and vision on one of Washington's staple outside zone-stretch runs. Thompson was cagey in pressing the edge. He waited for the cutback lane to develop and soon darted through it.

The smart scamper only gained five yards, but it was a decent display of the kind of attributes Washington needs on its outside runs.

Yet those two plays were all-too brief highlights for a player needing to show head coach Jay Gruden he can be relied on as a change-of-pace runner this season.

Of his 15 carries for 45 yards, there were too many runs that lacked a spark. Thompson looked like a back lacking the initiative to make his natural speed count. That would explain his meager 3.0 yards-per-carry average.

It was also too bad for Thompson that his pass catching wasn't up to much. Granted, he was hardly helped by quarterback Colt McCoy often neglecting to look his way.

Jacksonville's backup defenders also did a good job of sniffing out screen passes and reacting accordingly. The best example came when linebacker John Lotulelei dumped Thompson for a loss in the second quarter.

Thompson hasn't exactly thrived as a receiver this preseason.
Thompson hasn't exactly thrived as a receiver this preseason.Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Also, protection was an issue. On a 3rd-and-13 play in the second quarter, Thompson failed to identify an overload blitz off the right side. He turned the wrong way, and LaRoy Reynolds got the sack.

This was a pretty big whiff from Thompson and something the Redskins can't have from a running back on football's money down. Identifying and picking up blitzes are essential parts of the job.

Of course, Thompson's rather tepid display against the Jags would be a lot easier to take if Williams had made more of an impact. But while the rookie free agent impressed as a runner, he also revealed his Achilles' heel.

In limited action, Williams ran well. He made quicker and more incisive cuts than Thompson. Generally, Williams showed the ability to make people miss, something his more experienced counterpart has lacked this preseason.

As a change-of-pace speedster (4.45 40-yard dash) who can rip off some big gains, Williams was in the process of playing himself into the third-down role. Sadly, that's just when injury hit, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post:

Mike Jones @ByMikeJones

Trey Williams (left ankle injury) is questionable to return.

Williams sitting things out meant the Redskins would reach into the grab bag for another unheralded runner to take vital reps, per CBS DC's Brian McNally:

Brian McNally @bmcnally14

With Trey Williams out - for now - get ready for a whole lotta Mack Brown at running back the rest of the way.

So it proved as Mack Brown carried the ball 13 times for 48 yards and a touchdown. These were carries and plays Williams needed to show coaches the explosiveness he can add to 2015's running game.

With Thompson struggling on the ground, the moment was ripe for Williams to stake his claim. Yet instead, he again showed how brittle he is.

The former Texas A&M standout has already missed time this offseason with an "ankle injury," according to Real Redskins blogger Rich Tandler. Suffering another injury is one big red flag to coaches that this 5'7", 195-pounder is made of glass.

Injury meant Williams missed a golden chance to show off his speed and big-play flair.
Injury meant Williams missed a golden chance to show off his speed and big-play flair.Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Considering Thompson and his pitiful six appearances in two seasons, he isn't exactly the poster child for durability, so Washington's third-down backfield remains in a state of flux.

That's bad news for a rushing attack that needs something different this season. Alfred Morris and rookie Matt Jones are both powerhouse bruisers.

The Redskins need some lightning to go with the thunder. It's a clash of styles that can keep the opposition guessing and gash defenses in a variety of ways.

Just as important, though, the Washington passing game needs a dependable receiver out of the backfield. Such a player would offer a quick read and an easy dumpoff against pressure for Kirk Cousins, a quarterback sure to be under an unforgiving spotlight this season.

Given Cousins' past proclivity for forcing the ball downfield when he gets into trouble, a safety valve out of the backfield would prove invaluable.

When the Redskins let Roy Helu Jr. walk in free agency, they said goodbye to a back who offers all of these things. The pressure to find a replacement only increased when they lost Silas Redd for the season.

But based on this preseason, Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay are no closer to finding an answer. Williams' injury woes may have handed Thompson the job by default.

Watching the indecisive way he ran against the Jags, as well as some of his problems in protection, that's hardly great news.

All statistics and player information courtesy of NFL.com.

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