The Burgundy and Gold are just one game off the lead in the wide-open NFC East and have four divisional games in their last six. But the Redskins won't make their chance count unless head coach Jay Gruden recommits to the running game.
Gruden has to jump-start a ground attack that began the 2015 season piling up 343 yards through the first two weeks but has since slipped to 25th in the league rankings.
Fortunately, the answer is a lot simpler than Gruden thinks. All he has to do is actually call more running plays.
Left tackle Trent Williams summed it up well following Week 11's blowout loss to the Carolina Panthers, a game in which Washington ran the ball just 12 times for 14 yards. When asked how to fix the problem, Williams got straight to the point, according to Michael Phillips of the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
It's easy to endorse Williams' view, particularly when just 27 of the team's 244 rushing attempts this season have come on 2nd-and-8 or more, according to ESPN.com. So every time a first-down running play yields only a minimal gain, Gruden's default setting is to go to the air.
Why he's so hesitant to stitch run calls together lies in struggles up front and problems protecting the ball.
Offensive Line Woes
Poor blocking up front has made big plays on the ground a rarity. Washington ranks 29th in big rushing plays, according to Sporting Charts. Gruden's rushing offense also ranks 25th in stuffed percentage, a stat Sporting Charts describes as "the percentage of rushing attempts that are stopped by the opponent team at or before the line of scrimmage."
Both numbers prove how often blocking is failing in the running game. Too many times, ball-carriers are being met by D-linemen and linebackers in the backfield. Initially inviting holes are closed up too quickly.
Ironically, new O-line coach Bill Callahan's arrival has coaxed some improvement in pass protection, but his success has not translated to the ground. Last season, Callahan was the architect of the most dominant running game in the NFL.
Injuries to left guard Shawn Lauvao and Kory Lichtensteiger have played their part in the regression. The former is perhaps the most natural power-blocker on the team. Lichtensteiger's skills have always shown up more on the ground than in pass protection.
But it isn't just the line and its struggles deterring Gruden from having quarterback Kirk Cousins hand the ball off more often. He also knows the risk of giving opponents extra drives.
Rookie Matt Jones has been particularly generous. His inability to hold onto the ball has Gruden limiting his rushing opportunities, per Liz Clarke of the Washington Post:
Jones has squandered the chance to become the feature back while incumbent Alfred Morris has dealt with injuries and deteriorating form. Jones has greater big-play potential, yet Gruden is not wrong to hold him out to account for regularly putting the ball on the ground.
Ultimately, though, Jones' butter fingers, along with the inconsistencies of an injury-hit line implementing an adjusted blocking scheme, shouldn't be the death knell for Washington's rushing attack.
There are still ways for Gruden, Callahan and offensive coordinator Sean McVay to generate more success on the ground.
Personnel and Formations
The dismal rushing effort in Carolina actually came hot on the heels of a 209-yard day against the New Orleans Saints in Week 10. That rushing revival was keyed by some creative use of personnel and formations.
Washington's most common ploy was the overloaded O-line. Backup tackle Tom Compton was regularly aligned as a jumbo-sized tight end to create overloads and numbers advantages along the line of scrimmage. The formula consistently yielded big gains.
A 28-yard run by Morris was created by an overload on the left side featuring Compton and tight end Derek Carrier:
Morris also ripped off a 12-yard gain behind the same set:
Six- and seven-man lines are obvious power looks. Overloading sides means being able to exchange blocking responsibilities. If the overload blocks down, the guard on that side is free to pull into space.
Using an extra lineman wasn't the only wrinkle Washington's staff utilized. Gruden and McVay also created three-receiver bunch sets, positioned closer to the line of scrimmage.
This look helped Jones to a 20-yard gain:
The advantage of a look like this is two-fold. First, a bunch set shifts the strength of a defense. Running away from the bunch means running toward the unmanned side of the defense.
Alternatively, if you run behind the bunch, those blockers can crash down inside. This lets linemen pull out into space, trap style. A mobile tackle like Williams can thrive in this design, the way he did here.
These looks worked wonders against the Saints and their woeful defense. Of course, the stingy Panthers presented a different challenge.
Gruden could have answered those challenges if his creativity didn't stop at overloading the line of scrimmage.
Unearth Darrel Young and the Two-Back Offense
Where is Darrel Young? Seriously, this is a job for the keenest private investigator the Redskins can find. It makes no sense to continue on with a mediocre running game while one of the league's best lead blockers rots on the vine on the sidelines.
Washington has run just 15 plays from the I-formation this season, as noted by ESPN.com. That number has to at least quadruple in the final six games.
Even with Young off the field, Gruden is reticent to put another runner in the formation. Not a single run has been called out of a formation with two backs split. This is a waste of a deep backfield rotation.
Split backs are a staple of the West Coast-style offense Gruden has roots in. He has the weapons to make it work in Washington. Having Morris and Jones on the field together, or one in partnership with Chris Thompson, would create confusion for defenses pre-snap.
It would also expand the type of running plays Gruden can all. Off-tackle sweeps and inside traps are particularly effective from this look.
With Morris and Thompson banged up, an intriguing weapon that was recently added can help, according to Scout.com and Breaking Burgundy's Ben Standig:
The wild card this week? Newly added RB Christine Michael, who flamed out in Dallas and Seattle. However, the power back was drafted by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft when McCloughan worked there. If Morris can't go Sunday, Michael could be elevated from the practice squad. If Jones fumbles again, the Redskins could give Michael some love or at least a little work.
Gruden has the strength in backfield depth to get more of his backs on the field and expand the ways he can challenge defenses on the ground.
The link between success on the ground and Washington winning games has been clear this season. Consider the numbers:
|Washington's Run Game Through 2015|
|Week||Game||Rushing Attempts||Rushing Yards||Result|
|1||vs. Miami Dolphins||37||161||L 10-17|
|2||vs. St. Louis Rams||37||182||W 24-10|
|3||at New York Giants||20||88||L 21-32|
|4||vs. Philadelphia Eagles||32||127||W 23-20|
|5||at Atlanta Falcons||24||51||L 19-25|
|6||at New York Jets||17||34||L 20-34|
|7||vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||19||50||W 31-30|
|9||at New England Patriots||15||37||L 10-27|
|10||vs. New Orleans Saints||31||209||W 47-14|
|11||at Carolina Panthers||12||14||L 16-44|
Three of the four wins have come when the Redskins have run the ball more than 30 times and topped 125 rushing yards. Even Week 1's defeat to the Miami Dolphins owed more to breakdowns on special teams and turnovers.
Like any team, a productive running game builds the pass attack. Obviously, it opens the play-action passing game, usually a reliable route to big plays, particularly now that vertical threat DeSean Jackson is back.
Not only that, though, getting linebackers and safeties to key the backfield and play the run more often can also aid this passing game. It creates space behind the linebackers at the second level.
Washington's aerial attack is a second-level passing game with its shallow crossers and quick slants. Cousins and his receivers can thrive against second-level defenders being forced to overplay the run.
Whether Gruden likes it or not, this is a run-first offense. His team's success will only match success on the ground.
Starting in Week 12 against a New York Giants' 19th-ranked run defense, surrendering 111 yards per game, Gruden must mix personnel and formations to call a game committed to success on the ground.
Recommitting to Morris, Jones and Co. can run Washington all the way to the playoffs.
Statistics and player information via NFL.com, unless otherwise stated.
Screen shots via Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.