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Two-Back Offense Can Revive Washington Redskins Running Game

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 9, 2015

Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones (31) looks on next to Alfred Morris, right, at an NFL football organized team activity, Tuesday, June 9, 2015, in Ashburn, Va. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press

The numbers say that the Washington Redskins should abandon the running game. It hasn't worked and isn't sustainable.

But for all the dismal figures for average yards per carry and attempts, there's one simpler number Washington's coaches should consider: the numbers of backs in the offense.

Simply put, the Redskins need to let the two-back offense revive their dormant running game.

Of the team's 307 rushing attempts, 236 have come from offensive sets with a lone setback, according to ESPN.com. The same source details how a further 52 attempts have come out of the shotgun, usually a one-back formation.

This is the framework that's produced some historically bad numbers. As Rich Tandler of Real Redskins noted, during the last seven games the Redskins "have rushed the ball 150 times for 364 yards. That’s an average of 2.4 yards per carry. That’s over a yard-and-a-half lower than the NFL average of 4.1 yards per carry."

Washington's runners aren't punishing defenses.
Washington's runners aren't punishing defenses.Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Tandler's individual breakdown is even more depressing, especially when he puts the numbers into a historic context:

In those seven games the Redskins have averaged 2.1, 2.0, 2.6, 2.6, 2.5, 1.2, 2.8, and 2.8 yards per carry. The Redskins went from the 2010 season through last year with only eight total games averaging less than three yards per carry. Those games constitute streaks of four and three games with an average of under three yards per carry. They have had a two-game stretch of less than three yards per carry once since 2000, in 2007.

Even stepping back and looking at the whole season, their average of 3.68 yards per carry would be their worst since 1994.

Those are terrible numbers, but the ineptitude is hardly unique in the NFC East, according to Warren Sharp of Sharp Football:

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Warren Sharp @SharpFootball

The NFC East is running the ball well lately (past 2 wks, thru MNF): 31. NYG - 2.8 ypc 30. WAS - 2.8 ypc 29. DAL - 3.1 ypc 27. PHI - 3.3 ypc

Figures like this offer the strongest endorsement possible for giving up trying to establish the ground game as the foundation of Washington's offense. Tandler calls trying to force the run "the definition of insanity."

Sure, the Redskins have been doing a lot to make their one-back scheme work. During the 19-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13, that involved fielding overloaded offensive lines featuring three left tackles. Tom Compton and Ty Nsekhe joined starter Trent Williams.

The problem was that the jumbo front didn't yield big gains on the ground; nor have the three-tight end sets that have been common at times this season.

But the solution is a lot easier than head coach Jay Gruden and offensive coordinator Sean McVay realize: Just ditch the one-back set. Junk that offense and bring back the I-formation.

Darrel Young and the I-Formation

The two-back offense was conspicuous by its absence against the Cowboys. Specifically, fullback Darrel Young continued to be missing in action, as CSN Mid-Atlantic's Tarik El-Bashir noted:

Tarik El-Bashir⌨️🎙🏒 @TarikNBCS

#Redskins FB Darrel Young didn't play a snap on offense for the first time this season. He played exclusively on special teams (21 snaps).

It makes zero sense to complain about woes running the ball when you leave one of the NFL's best blocking backs rotting on the sideline each week. Young is a punishing blocker, one who has always made those behind him better.

Consider Alfred Morris' best game in the last two seasons. It came in Week 12 of the 2014 season on the road against the San Francisco 49ers. Morris battered his way for 125 yards on 21 carries behind Young's blocking.

Most of his best runs, including the game-high 30-yarder in the third quarter, came out of the I-formation.

Just because it's been so rare this season, here's a reminder of what it actually looks like:

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It's pointless condemning the running game to the scrapheap this season unless Young is given consistent playing time.

This running game needs Young back on the field.
This running game needs Young back on the field.Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

But putting Young in front of the designated ball-carrier isn't the only version of a two-back offense the Burgundy and Gold can lean on.

Putting Alfred Morris and Matt Jones Together

One thing the Redskins must do to save their running game is scrap the so-called "hot hand" approach. It's been the thinking behind alternating between Morris and rookie Matt Jones as the primary workhorse each week.

The snap counts against Dallas were very revealing. Morris was a forgotten man, as noted by El-Bashir:

Tarik El-Bashir⌨️🎙🏒 @TarikNBCS

#Redskins RB Alfred Morris saw only eight snaps and six carries vs. #Cowboys. He did not log a carry after the first quarter.

By contrast, Jones "played 40 snaps—four more than he had played in the previous two games combined," according to Anthony Gulizia of the Washington Times. These numbers flipped the script from one week earlier against the New York Giants.

Still, the team continues to defend its erratic approach to challenging defenses on the ground, according to Gulizia: "Coach Jay Gruden has remained adamant that neither running back is falling out of favor, but that he wants to ride the 'hot hand,' so to speak."

It's better still to split the carries more evenly between the two. That way, the Burgundy and Gold's running game can feature all of the attributes any successful ground attack needs.

With Jones lugging the rock, the Redskins have genuine field-stretching speed and big-play capability on the ground. When it's Morris' turn to carry the load, Washington's offense can count on a dependable workhorse who will move the chains and won't make mistakes.

Instead of favoring one over the other, Gruden should work double-digit carries for both into his weekly game plans.

Gruden should also focus more on getting both backs on the field at the same time. Having two runners who can double as fullbacks or tailbacks presents unique advantages for any rushing attack.

Pairing Jones and Morris in the backfield would create a very useful run-heavy set for Washington.
Pairing Jones and Morris in the backfield would create a very useful run-heavy set for Washington.Evan Vucci/Associated Press/Associated Press

Specifically, it's a game of Guess Who? anytime a defense sees Morris aligned in front of Jones or vice versa—as in, just who is going to get the ball?

That conundrum exists no matter how Jones and Morris align together. Defenses will be kept guessing, even when Jones and Morris are split backs in a pro-style formation.

Gruden can reach into the historical grab bag to find examples of two bruising, power backs working well in tandem. In the mid-'90s, the Pittsburgh Steelers weren't shy about putting Barry Foster and Bam Morris together.

In 2003, the Carolina Panthers put DeShaun Foster and ex-Redskins 1,000-yard back Stephen Davis in the same formation.

Davis and Foster stand as a great example of a dominant and versatile two-back offense.
Davis and Foster stand as a great example of a dominant and versatile two-back offense.Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Speaking of the Panthers, this season's vintage provides a few helpful tips for getting Washington's ground game on track. The best tip involves using a full-house backfield, like this one the Panthers unleashed against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13:

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Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula put halfback Jonathan Stewart behind quarterback Cam Newton and flanked No. 1 with fullback Mike Tolbert and tight end Ed Dickson. Tolbert would get the call and scamper his way for 29 yards.

Now imagine this look with Morris behind Kirk Cousins, while Jones and Young bracket the quarterback. Washington would still be able to put DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon on the field. Gruden would even be able to choose one of those wide receivers and split tight end Jordan Reed out.

The Redskins aren't winning with brute-force strength in the running game. Their O-line isn't dominating, and their runners aren't powering though many would-be tacklers.

Adding a little misdirection with multiple-back schemes would help manufacture a few big gains.

Gruden and McVay have tried loading the line of scrimmage to get the ground game going. Yet just because that plan failed, it's a mistake to abandon the rushing attack altogether, despite Tandler's concerns.

The fact is, December football is running football. With more at stake late in the season, defenses are getting more aggressive. Washington found that out the hard way against the blitz-crazed Cowboys in Week 13.

The only way to avoid similar problems during the final four weeks is to establish the running game. The only way to do that is to reintroduce the two-back offense.

All screen shots via Fox Sports and NFL.com Game Pass.

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