by Irfan Karimullah, special to Breaking Burgundy
The Redskins running game was a concern heading into the first game of the preseason, and nothing happened against the Falcons to ease those concerns. With the departure of Alfred Morris, and no major game-changing additions to the running back core or the offensive line, Wash heading into 2016 poised to face many of the same difficulties they faced last season. Just how big were those problems last season? Let's take a look.
(PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Redskins optimists and people who find stats boring, stop reading now)
Stats referenced in this article are provided by Football Outsiders. Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) and Defensive-Adjusted Yards Above Replacement (DYAR) are advanced stats to better measure the true value of a team and individual player performance respectively. They factor in game situation, defense, and comparison to the league as a whole. For example, according to DVOA and DYAR, a 4 yard run on 3rd and 3 with a 3 point lead in the 4th quarter against the Panthers defense is a much more valuable play than a 15 yard run on 3rd and 20 trailing by 4 in the first quarter against the Saints.
REDSKINS RUSHING AS A TEAM:
The 2015 Redskins ranked 32nd in the NFL in rushing DVOA. For those keeping track, that's dead last in the NFL.
Redskins optimists who are still reading may say, "It's all good...the Patriots don't even run the ball anymore. No one in the NFL does. And we won the division and made the playoffs!"
The second part regarding the division and playoffs are true. The first part? Not so much. Yes, the Patriots ranked 25th in the league in rushing attempts. The vaunted and much hyped (and Week 1 opponent) Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 24th. But there's a big difference between "didn't run," and "couldn't run." The Patriots finished 12th in the league in rushing DVOA. The Steelers finished 3rd. The 15-1 Super Bowl Runner-Up Panthers finished 6th.
And about those playoffs...
Of the last 8 surviving teams playing in the NFL Playoffs last season, only the Broncos and Cardinals finished outside of the Top 11 in rushing DVOA. And I think it's safe to say, what the Broncos lacked in rushing the ball, they made up for in rushing the passer.
Don't believe the rumors. Running the ball efficiently in the NFL still matters. Whether the Redskins have the personnel to do that remains a huge question.
THE RUNNING BACKS:
The Redskins have only two locks to make the team at RB at this point in the preseason: Matt Jones and Chris Thompson. Both have shown signs of promise, but both have probably shown they’re more prone to going up in smoke than setting the field on fire.
Granted, every year, it seems a running back comes out of nowhere to shock the league. Devonta Freeman. David Johnson. Thomas Rawls. Justin Forsett in 2014. Alfred Morris in 2012. The list goes on and on. The question is, will Jones and/or Thompson get added to that list?
The early indications are, no.
Among 44 qualifying rushers (100+ carries) in 2015, Jones finished 44th in DYAR. 3.4 yards per carry will do that. Chris Thompson's DYAR would have put him at a not much better 34th, but he only had 35 carries.
"But he averaged 6.2 yards on those 35 carries!" Yes. Yes he did, due to a lot of 6-yard runs on 3rd on 10s.
Of course, running backs are inherently tied to their offensive line. A great back can make a bad line look better, and a great line can make an average back look great (see 2014 Murray, DeMarco). The Redskins clearly believe that their running backs can get the job done, and given the flux at running back in the NFL, there's no reason to think that's impossible.
However, there is far less flux in the NFL on the O-line, meaning the Redskins lack of O-line changes may foreshadow a lack of significant run game change.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE:
(For you Redskins diehards out there, brace yourself. The following stats are in praise of the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.)
Watching the Redskins last season, there constantly felt like an obvious lack of those infamous "chunk" yardage runs, the 5-10 yard gains that put your offense in great position to succeed and open up the entire playbook. Picking up chunks of yards requires getting blockers and backs to the second level, and the Redskins simply failed to get that done. According to Football Outsiders, the Redskins ranked 27th out of 32 teams in 2015 in those 2nd level yard runs. And getting those solid gains on 1st down is like playing with house money, but the Redskins simply folded in such situations, finishing last in 1st down rushing DVOA.
Naturally, this responsibility is shared between the backs and the offensive line, but having below average running backs doesn't have to equate to a below average running game, when the offensive line performs
Take the Cowboys for example (Again, apologies). Darren McFadden was ranked just 17th in DYAR in 2015, while Julius Randle's DYAR would've ranked him 35th if he'd had enough carries to qualify. Neither back was particularly stellar. In fact, advanced stats show both were below average. Yet, with below average running backs, the Cowboys overall run game remained solid. Dallas still managed to rank 12th in the NFL on those 5-10 yard runs, and ranked 8th in 1st down rushing DVOA. And with quarterbacks barely NFL caliber (Matt Cassell and Brandon Weeden) and defenses gearing up to stop their run game, the Cowboys still managed to finish 9th in overall rushing DVOA. (Fun note: They finished 32nd in passing).
There's a reason Ezekiel Elliott is a first round pick in Fantasy Football, and it's not his crop tops. A solid to dominant offensive line can be the difference between a cute playoff surprise and a legit playoff threat. If the Redskins are going to make the transition from the former to the latter, they're going to need a big time boost from their big guys up front. Jones and Thompson might be really good. The O-line needs to help the Redskins find out.
IS THIS ALL "SOMETHING" OR "NOTHING" FOR 2016?
With minimal turnover on the offensive line from last season, and the only major change in the backfield being the loss of their leading rusher, fan favorite Alfred Morris, signs sure seem to point toward more rushing struggles in 2016. But there's hope. In the NFL, there is always hope. No other sports league can match the NFL in worst-to-first stories and reasons for optimism from year to year. Injuries play a part. Luck plays a part. Most importantly, off-season improvement always a part. The running backs must be better. Same with the offensive line, though Trent Williams is pretty, pretty, pretty good.
The pass game is promising. The pass blocking is promising. The receiving core is promising. But the glass ceiling is the First Round of the Playoffs, and if the Redskins want to break through it, they're going to have to run through it.
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