Redskins' starter at running back remains unknown

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Sports,NFL,Redskins,John Keim

Helu, Morris, Royster all will get some looks

ASHBURN -- The Redskins could opt for Alfred Morris' feel-good story, turning the sixth-round pick into a starter. They could opt for reliable Evan Royster, a tough inside runner. Or they could go with Roy Helu, a potential outside threat.

The Redskins don't have one primary back -- they haven't named a starter for Sunday's season opener. They do have three backs capable of helping in some fashion.

In reality, the running game is determined as much by the blocking as the back. If the line -- and tight ends and receivers for that matter -- does its job, then lanes open. Cohesion up front leads to productivity from the backs. Each lineman must be comfortable with how the others operate on combination blocks and cut blocks.

And it's also probably true that each of the three backs will get a chance as a starter this season.

"I like what I've seen in practice. I like what I've seen in the game," coach Mike Shanahan said. "Each guy's got a little bit different quality. It will be interesting to see these guys compete."

Said Royster: "I think they'll keep us in the dark until the day before the game."

Here's a look at all three backs.

Royster » With Tim Hightower unhealthy, Royster entered camp as the No. 1 back. The only reason he momentarily left that spot was because of a sore knee. Royster has excellent vision and makes decisive cuts. The inside zone runs fit him well because of this. He improved in pass protection and does a good job getting yards after contact (or did in his two starts last season). Royster's issue is speed and balance. Both prevented any runs over 28 yards last season. Yet it's tough to ignore his 5.9 yards per carry in 2011.

Morris »

The rookie from Florida Atlantic emerged as one of the best stories in training camp. What he showed likely will transfer over to the regular-season games, too. His style of running -- low pad level, good body lean -- lends itself to positive gains. Indeed, in his 39 carries this summer he lost yards on only three carries -- and 20 gained at least 4 yards. He's not fast -- Morris ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds at the combine. But he anticipates pressure well, allowing him to make quick cuts.

But Morris struggled picking up the blitz. It's not a matter of desire or technique; it's a matter of recognition. In college he said he was responsible for only half the field. Here, he must pick up blitzes from both sides. Does Shanahan trust him yet in this role? It's a factor.

Helu »

He's tough to figure. He looked like he could carry a heavy load during a four-game stretch in which he ran 96 times. But then he carried a combined four times in the next two games. And this season he already has dealt with sore Achilles tendons, limiting him to two preseason games (but 15 carries for 90 yards in the final one). It's hard to imagine him being ready for a full load.

But he also has the most flash of the three and therefore more long-run potential. Helu shakes more defenders, especially when he can get on the edge. He's better than the other two running the outside stretch zone as well as on screen passes. He was inconsistent in pass protection last season; the coaches say he has improved.

jkeim@washingtonexaminer.com

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