By Steve Shoup, special to Breaking Burgundy
Last season when it came to yards per carry for the Redskins’ offense and defense they ranked at the bottom of the league, 30th and 31st respectively. It was a major concern for them all year. This year as the Redskins hope to repeat as NFC East champions and get back to the postseason, they will need better performances from each unit to get closer to at least league average. Unfortunately the Redskins rushing units will face an extremely tough test Week 1 as the Pittsburgh Steelers are strong in both areas.
Redskins rushing offense vs Steelers rushing defense:
Last year the Redskins averaged an anemic 3.7 yards per carry and managed just 9 rushing touchdowns for the season. Sadly both of those numbers look better than what the Redskins will take the field with on Monday night. Of the Redskins 9 rushing touchdowns a year ago, Kirk Cousins was responsible for 5 of them in what is likely not a sustainable part of the Redskins offense. While the Redskins overall rushing average was 3.7, it was even worse than that for the Redskins expected feature back Matt Jones, who only managed a 3.4 ypc. Of the 44 qualifying running backs with over 100 carries last season, Jones had the worst ypc average. On the other side the Steelers boast a rushing defense that finished 5th in total rushing yards allowed, 6th in yards allowed per carry (3.8) and 2nd in total rushing touchdowns allowed (6).
One positive for the Redskins is that their personnel should be improved this season, particularly among their blockers. Last year due to injuries the Redskins basically had 4 first year starters along their offensive line to go along with Trent Williams. That is a lot of inexperience and growing pains for an offensive line, and it even impacted the most talented of the group G Brandon Scherff and OT Morgan Moses. This season Scherff and Moses should be improved and more consistent, and veterans G Shawn Lauvao and C Kory Lichtensteiger should help stabilize the unit.
In addition the return of tight end Niles Paul and the signing of TE Vernon Davis gives the Redskins a pair of run blocking tight ends that they simply didn’t have last season. The improved blocking with hopefully a better runner in Matt Jones this season, gives the Redskins some hope for improvement unfortunately it might not be fully realized week one.
The Steelers return basically their same defensive front and it is filled with very talented players like ends Cameron Heyward and Stephen Tuitt and ILB’s Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons. Even with improved blocking and better RB play this will not be an easy task for the Redskins and they are likely going to have to ground out every yard in this game.
Redskins rushing defense vs Steelers rushing offense:
The Redskins rushing defense last season gave up 100 yards in 8 of their 16 games which isn’t too bad, but in 6 of those games they gave up over 150 yards rushing. It was a very streaky performance which basically allowed any quality rushing attack to run all over the Redskins. The one positive for Washington was that they did a good job limiting rushing touchdowns allowed, giving up just 10 for the season (which was 10th best in the league). They have their work cut out for them week one as they face a Steelers rushing attack that was among the best in the league last year.
While some might see Le’Veon Bell’s suspension as a major reprieve for the Redskins run defense, they still have to face a very talented running back in DeAngelo Williams . Last year the Steelers 4.4 ypc average was 8th best in the league and their 16 rushing touchdowns were good for 6th best in the league. Williams led the charge with 907 yards and 11 TDs on 200 carries (4.5 ypc). While Bell is the better runner, Williams is very talented in his own right and will be an extremely tough test for the Redskins, particularly behind his quality offensive line. The Steelers OL will get a boost this season as All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey returns from injury and presents a major challenge to the Redskins interior defensive line.
Unlike offensively where the Redskins can point to the likely development of young players, free agent signings, and the return of some key veterans from injury in their hope for an improved ground game, the Redskins defensive front looks possibly worse than it did a year ago. Gone from the defensive front line are Terrance Knighton, Jason Hatcher, and Stephen Paea while inside linebackers Perry Riley and Keenan Robinson are no longer on the depth chart for Washington. Though none of these players were exceptionally great or even very good last season, they are still players the Redskins need to replace.
Knighton and Hatcher were perhaps the Redskins two most consistent run defenders last season and at least part of the reason why the Redskins did a good job keeping runners outside of the end zone. It’s unclear if guys like Kendall Reyes and Kedric Golston can replicate their production. This is a huge question area for the Redskins and one that could haunt them all season. It’s possible that some players could breakout and really improve the unit, but it’s unlikely that will happen week 1 versus a tough Steelers rushing attack.
Basically what this boils down to is if this game is decided on the ground the Redskins are in trouble be it on offense or defense. The Redskins have to strike early and often with their passing offense to force the Steelers to throw the ball against Washington’s improved secondary. Additionally success in the passing game is probably the only thing that could open up some favorable rushing situations for the Redskins offense.
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