The Washington Redskins found something in Week 3. It turns out it's something they've had for a while. They just haven't been using it enough. After all, it's a weapon that was missing for 26 games in 2013 and '14.
If the 32-21 loss to the New York Giants proved anything, it's that running back Chris Thompson deserves a bigger role in the Burgundy and Gold's offense. Head coach Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator Sean McVay and line boss Bill Callahan must scheme ways to get their backfield Swiss army knife more involved, particularly in the passing game.
Many of Thompson's eight receptions for 57 yards against the Giants showed how they can do it.
Thompson needs to become a feature of Washington's pass attack for two clear reasons, both of which will help quarterback Kirk Cousins make smarter decisions and safer throws from the pocket.
Using Thompson in more creative ways can help the Redskins manipulate defenses into obvious coverage mismatches. Depending on where Thompson's aligned, 2013's fifth-round pick can pull a defensive formation out of shape by dragging a player into a coverage assignment that favors the offense.
One obvious way to achieve that is to split Thompson out wide the way Gruden did in the fourth quarter against Big Blue. Thompson flexed to the sideline as part of Washington's five-receiver set:
The adjusted formation spread the Giants out in coverage. Thompson's position meant linebacker Jonathan Casillas had to go wide as a de facto cornerback to cover.
A linebacker trying to cover a speedy running back in space is a matchup win for any passing game. So it proved for the Redskins as Thompson ran an underneath slant across Casillas' face:
Thompson easily got across Casillas and presented Cousins with an easy target. He snatched the ball in front and gave the linebacker the slip en route to 14 yards:
Two things about this play show Thompson's value. First, he's a good bet to make yards after the catch. His diminutive 5'8" stature makes it difficult for would-be tacklers to track and get a clear shot at No. 25. Defenders also can't hit what they can't see. Field-stretching speed means Thompson is usually a step or two ahead of any imminent hit.
The second factor at play here was how easily the Redskins forced New York into adjusting its nickel set. Just by moving Thompson out of the backfield, Washington put the G-Men in a bind. They had to move a linebacker ill-equipped in coverage out of the box and into space.
That can be a quick route to some big plays through the air.
The Redskins nearly exploited that route for a huge gain in the opening quarter. Facing 3rd-and-2, Gruden and McVay deployed their offense in a 3x1 set with tight end Jordan Reed split out as the lone receiver on one side, while Thompson began in the backfield:
Washington planned to isolate Thompson against Casillas on a swing pass up the sideline. Casillas was going to get lost in traffic trying to come across and track Thompson's route outside:
Thompson soon got free in space and hauled in Cousins' pass for a catch-and-run worth 33 yards:
Sadly, while the design of this play was flawless, the execution wasn't. At least that was the view of the officials who flagged Reed's contact on Casillas as pass interference.
But even though this concept was wrecked by human error, it still showed how the Redskins can use Thompson as a ticket to multiple huge gains in the passing game.
But those gains aren't the only advantage available from utilizing Thompson at a variety of spots.
Beating the Blitz
Cousins struggles against the blitz. Callahan's blocking schemes also have trouble with sophisticated pressure designs.
The answer to these problems is finding a quicker way to beat the blitz. Thompson can provide it.
Against the Giants, he twice helped Cousins get rid of the ball before extra rushers got home in the fourth quarter.
In the first example, the Redskins again deployed a 3x1 set. Thompson would release out of the backfield on the lone wide receiver side:
The Giants were running an overload blitz on that side of the formation. Casillas and safety Landon Collins were set to rush off that edge. This meant middle 'backer Uani' Unga would have to sprint wide to cover Thompson in the flat, obviously one of the more optimistic coverage assignments a defense can set.
Right from the start of the play, Unga had no chance. He was put in a terrible position, left hopelessly trailing in space:
Thompson was too inviting a target for Cousins to resist. His route, specifically how it put the Giants in an unfavorable coverage situation, gave Cousins the chance to get rid of the ball quickly, in time to beat the blitzing defenders closing in on him:
Thompson was wide-open to haul in a quick and easy throw for eight yards:
A shorter play beat the blitz near the goal line later in the final period. This time, Thompson was split out wide as a receiver, as the Redskins again spread the defense out with multiple receivers. The Giants were going to pressure Cousins by sending Unga and Casillas through the middle:
Thompson's alignment drew ex-Washington safety Brandon Meriweather into single coverage. As any Redskins fan still scarred by memories of Meriweather trailing receivers knows, whenever he's forced into space it's a win for an offense.
In this case, the Redskins used a combination route between Thompson and Pierre Garcon. The latter had flexed into the slot.
No. 88 would break outside to the corner of the end zone while Thompson crossed underneath:
Meriweather now not only had to keep up with Thompson in space, he also had to avoid Garcon in traffic. Predictably, the safety soon found himself lagging behind as he tried to reach the catch point:
Again, Cousins was given an easy target and a quick throw to beat pressure in his face:
The part of this play that really stood out is how defensive end Kerry Wynn was allowed a free rush at Cousins. Note the word "allowed."
Because of the Giants sending a pair of interior blitzers, Washington's O-line naturally had to slide its protection inside. This meant left tackle Trent Williams blocked down to pick up Unga.
But the Redskins didn't care about leaving Wynn unblocked. They bet Thompson would get open soon enough so Cousins could release the ball quickly before Wynn made contact.
Given the design of the play, along with Thompson's speed and knack for getting open, this was a true calculated risk.
That risk paid off when Thompson caught the ball in front of Meriweather and slipped the safety's grasp to complete a four-yard scoring reception:
Manipulating a defense out of its initial formation and getting the kind of coverage matchups they want are the luxuries Thompson affords the Redskins.
At the moment, Washington isn't doing enough to indulge in those luxuries. Fortunately though, changing that is a quick fix.
Taking Greater Advantage of Thompson
To take more advantage of what Thompson offers, Gruden can look in two places. The first is around the league to see how other teams are using running backs this season.
One of the major trends has been to send backs on deep routes to stretch the field vertically. A pair of teams pulled off the tactic beautifully in Week 2.
First, the New England Patriots turned matchbox-sized, megafast Dion Lewis into a deep threat.
On 2nd-and-20 in the dying minutes of the first half during their 40-32 road win over the Buffalo Bills, the Pats split Lewis out as a wide receiver. That forced the Bills to move linebacker Nigel Bradham into coverage:
Lewis would release on a go route up the sideline. To gain separation, he used a stop-and-go move to first freeze Bradham, then scoot beyond him:
Once beyond Bradham, Lewis snatched a 40-yard pass from Tom Brady:
In their 20-10 win over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Dallas Cowboys used Lance Dunbar in the same way.
Facing 3rd-and-13 from their own 29-yard line, the Cowboys split Dunbar out wide. Philly had to shift rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks out to cover:
Like Lewis, Dunbar would breeze past Hicks on a go route:
By moving Dunbar out wide, the Cowboys had spread the field. They'd also wrecked the Eagles' two-deep, man-under coverage shell.
With prolific tight end Jason Witten and three wide receivers also facing one-on-one matchups, those deep safeties were likely to ignore Dunbar's route.
That meant leaving a linebacker isolated deep. So it proved as Dunbar breezed past Hicks:
You can see the safeties in the middle of the field, ignoring the outside vertical from Dunbar.
He made a nice catch to complete a 39-yard gain:
These are the types of gains possible from expansive concepts that make creative use of a pass-catching running back with speed and a good understanding of pass routes.
They are also the kind of plays that will work against the Eagles in Week 4. The game is threatened by violent weather conditions, according to NFL Media's Albert Breer (h/t Kevin Patra of the league's official site).
Yet CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora has since confirmed the league has informed both teams the game will be played:
Wherever and whenever the game is played, the Redskins can use Thompson to exploit an Eagles defense that's had major trouble containing backfield receivers through three games this season.
But that plan doesn't just have to involve sending Thompson deep. He can work the middle of the field as a slot receiver and still create big plays.
Gruden knows what this approach looks like. He used it to help Giovani Bernard enjoy a productive rookie season for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013. Bernard rushed for 695 yards and caught 56 balls for 514 as a dual-threat weapon in Gruden's scheme.
His best game came against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 14. Bernard caught a 22-yarder when Gruden moved him into the slot on 1st-and-10 from the Cincy 34:
He was matched up against inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman.
Linebackers just can't live with runners who can make moves at speed in space. Bernard left Freeman snatching at air courtesy of a double move:
After taking a false step to the outside, he flashed across Freeman's face to the inside:
Bernard was now wide-open in the middle, giving quarterback Andy Dalton a can't-miss target. Despite having to reach for a ball thrown behind him, Bernard made the grab and scampered free:
Gruden needs to show the same willingness to set Thompson free against defenses.
He also shouldn't be reluctant to turn him loose in the running game. Callahan can provide pointers for how to unleash Thompson's speed between the tackles.
As line coach and coordinator of the Cowboys in 2013, Callahan used Dunbar as a change-of-pace ball-carrier. The pint-sized pace merchant exploded through the Oakland Raiders defense for 45 yards in Week 13 of that season.
It was a play that ought to look very familiar to Washington. Dunbar ran behind classic, zone-stretch blocking:
The Dallas line stretched laterally to the left while guards Ronald Leary and Mackenzy Bernadeau moved up to the second level to absorb inside linebackers.
With the blocking set, the natural cutback lane all zone plays aim to create began to open up:
Dunbar shifted his feet and made the one-cut-and-go move essential to zone-running schemes:
Notice the two unblocked players in the secondary. They were Dunbar's responsibility. At least, using his quicks and elusiveness to make them miss was. He succeeded to complete his big gain.
Teams with a fast, lightning-in-a-bottle runner can afford to trust that ball-carrier to elude any unaccounted for defenders. Thompson has the same set of skills. In the offseason, he stated how he's "not questioning my explosiveness and speed anymore,” following his injury history, according to ESPN.com's John Keim.
With Alfred Morris and Matt Jones offering thunder as a bruising double act, Thompson can add some real lightning to an already game-changing rushing attack.
Gruden's called him Washington's "best receiving halfback," according to the team's official site. He's also no slouch as a runner, as an eight yard-per-carry average so far this season proves.
Now's the time to start using Thompson more to expand both Washington's rushing attack and passing game.
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