Redskins position review: running backs

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Redskins Confidential,Sports,John Keim,Redskins Position Review

Starters: Alfred Morris, Darrel Young

Backups: Evan Royster, Keiland Williams

By the numbers: While Morris’ total yards increased during the seven-game win streak – as would be expected considering he averaged 6.2 more carries per game – he wasn’t more efficient. Actually, it shows how consistent he was all season. In the first nine games Morris gained 793 yards on 164 carries for 4.8 yards per carry. In the final seven games he gained 820 yards on 171 carries – also 4.8 yards per run. However, in December he averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored seven touchdowns. So much for a rookie wall.

Better or worse than 2011: Better. They had one runner who stayed healthy and produced a club-record 1,613-yard season.

Analysis: Yes, Morris was helped by the zone read option game and Robert Griffin III’s presence. Griffin made every player on the offense better. So there’s no doubt that it helped create better running lanes and had him running through arm tackles at the line instead of through a linebacker. All of that is true. Heck, the same reasons helped Pro Bowler Frank Gore in Sunday’s win over Atlanta on the Niners’ final touchdown (with Colin Kaepernick’s running as a worry for the Falcons). But that doesn’t mean Morris wasn’t effective or that he didn’t help the offense with how he ran.

You want to know why Kirk Cousins played so well vs. Cleveland? Because the Browns were intent on not letting Morris beat them, overselling to stop the run. The play-action and bootleg throws then killed them.

Morris was a fantastic story, but he quickly showed that he was a tough runner. There were no zone read plays in the preseason, but Morris did run over defenders. He trucked Saints linebacker David Hawthorne at the 1-yard line en route to a TD in the season opener. Morris ran low enough that defenders in the hole often ran into his pads. It helped him gain extra yards time and again.

But Morris deserves a lot of credit for his vision, the way he set up blocks and his brains. Though he struggled early with staying on the proper path, Morris eventually learned how to run the proper way in the stretch zone. Remember, this was a new offense for him.  Once he found a comfort level he had even more success pressing the hole. There were a number of examples of Morris getting on the heels of his linemen, then cutting back – check out this run vs. Tampa Bay as a terrific example. He routinely forced linebackers to commit to that hole and when they’d try to scrape back, a blocker was in position to seal the hole.

His vision, Morris told me early in the season, was helped by running behind a weak line at Florida Atlantic. It forced him to see defenders quickly and then make a cut. He also was adept at studying defensive players during the game. Against Atlanta, for example, Morris set up a 29-yard run by getting LB Sean Weatherspoon to overcommit to the outside – as Morris figured he would. It created a run lane inside.

So, yes, Morris helped himself and his blockers. You can’t just credit the scheme for his success.

But Morris is not a burner and that’s a reason his longest run of the season was only 39 yards. He had nine games where his longest run was less than 20 yards. Then again, Gore had 11 games where his longest run was 19 yards or less and his long for the season was 37.

Viewed another way: Morris (and Gore) were remarkably consistent given that they didn’t have a ton of long gainers.

Meanwhile, Darrel Young did an excellent job as a blocker though he wasn’t always needed. But when the Redskins went to their jumbo pistol formation, or whatever you want to call it, Young proved his worth. I like him as a weapon out of the backfield, but I also know that if you want an explosive offense the fullback will be a bit player when it comes to running or catching the ball. Young has good speed and in this offense, defenders lost sight of him because they had to worry about the back and Griffin. That’s what happened on Young’s two touchdown catches.

Royster struggled in protection for the first half of the season, but improved in this role. It’s tough to judge him as a runner considering he never had more than four carries in a game. Tough to get into any rhythm.  Royster showed better hands later in the year, but he’s not the ideal third-down back. But he had to be one because Morris was not ready for an every-down role for much of the season.

2013 outlook: How will Morris hold up after carrying the ball 335 times as a rookie? That’s a lot of carries for someone who’s not a big bruiser. Clinton Portis carried the ball at least 325 times in four different seasons with Washington, doing so back to back on two occasions. While Portis played as hard as anybody, Morris will enter camp in better shape and, the Redskins hope, will be better able to handle lots of carries.

Still, history suggests backs with a similar load typically take a step back after such a season. (Actually, the magic number seems to be 370 carries, which Morris fell short of; when that happens, the chances of gaining fewer yards – and missing games – in the following season increase). Morris likes a heavy load and never seemed tired this year, so we’ll see what happens. Also, if Griffin can’t play because of his knee there will be more eight-man fronts designed to slow Morris. This year, many of the eight-man fronts were there to protect against Griffin running. Certainly it will be a major test for not only Morris, but the entire offense. How will Morris respond?

It’ll be interesting to see what happens as the offense evolves and how it impacts the run game. To expect another 1,600-yard season is a bit much and to think the Redskins will average 5.2 yards per carry again is rather optimistic. Even Denver, in its Super Bowl seasons under Mike Shanahan, did not hit that number.

But there’s no reason they can’t have another strong ground attack provided everyone remains healthy. They could use a change-of-pace back to add more speed in the backfield.

Offseason needs: Get Roy Helu back healthy. While Royster improved at picking up the blitz and showed fine hands, he’s not a big-time threat in the passing game. He’s fine as a backup runner, but the Redskins still need to add more speed to the backfield. They’ve added it elsewhere, why not here? It would enable them to run different plays – like the inverted veer/jet read that San Francisco ran with LaMichael James for a touchdown vs. Atlanta on Sunday. Can Helu be that guy? He needs to prove he’s durable, but he was timed in the 40-yard dash at 4.43 seconds at the 2011 combine so Helu’s speed is more than adequate (James ran the 40 in 4.37 seconds).

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