By Steve Shoup, special to Breaking Burgundy
In the Redskins Monday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, two major concerns plagued the Redskins; their inability to run the football for meaningful yards and their failure to hold the Steelers running game in check. Both were problems for this team last year, and it’s very troubling to see little to no progress in these areas. While both are serious issues that could impact the Redskins performance this season, of the two their weakness on run defense is the most troubling and what could sink this season.
The lack of an effective running game can definitely hurt the Redskins chances this season, but I don’t think it’s a dire concern. The Redskins were never going to be a balanced or even close to a balanced offense this season, so at most the rushing attack would account for 40% of the offensive plays. Washington though on offense can do things to help replace an ineffective running game with more screens and safe quick passes to stay ahead of the chains in certain situations where you’d ideally run the ball. With most of their offensive talent in the passing game, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to rely on them more. Of course just being on offense in general the Redskins can scheme and game plan to use their passing attack to cover up their running game woes, and use the rushing attack only when it seems in their best interest.
Now this not to say there aren’t still negatives the Redskins will have to overcome offensively for not having a legitimate rushing threat. Not having a balanced threat, allows opposing defenses to “cheat” in how they approach you. Opposing defenses could blitz more or cheap their premium coverage packages on the field on early downs because they don’t fear the run. It puts a lot more pressure on Kirk Cousins to be efficient and move the football, as quick three and outs will put even more pressure on defense. Situationally the lack of a run game can be an issue as well. In short yardage and goalline chances not having a reasonable threat on the ground to pick up those key plays could lead to extra punts and field goals.
Though those are reasonable concerns, they pale in comparison to the hurdles the Redskins run defense may have to face. Whereas on offense the Redskins can dictate the play calling and scheme ways, to cover up the running deficiencies, defensively they are more or less going to be at the mercy of the opposing offense. They can’t ask a team to run the football less against them or avoid the run in key situations. Unless the Redskins are up by multiple scores in the 2nd half of the game, there is no incentive for opposing teams not to run the football. If a team is running it effectively on the Redskins it will put more pressure on the Redskins offense to score touchdowns, and it will neutralize the Redskins talented pass defense by putting them in bad situations.
Ideally on defense you of course want to force teams into 3rd and long (6 or more yards) situations. Not only should this eliminate the run as a legitimate option in picking up the first down, which allows for more aggressive pass rushing, but it also forces the QB to hold on to the ball longer leading to more sacks. Also defenses have the luxury to concede short passes and just make the tackle before they pick up the first. If it’s a 3rd and 4 or less situation, it’s a much different outlook for the defense. The running threat is still there (particularly vs a run defense that struggles), which forces the defense to approach the situation differently (and possibly stay in their base package).
Now those quick screens, slants and hitches can easily pick up the first down. This is a real concern the Redskins defense is facing. If they are giving up a combined 7-9 yards on the ground on first and 2nd down, then you are taking away some of the Redskins biggest defensive threats. That of course even assumes that the Redskins defense didn’t give up the first down between the first two plays to begin with.
The other big concerns with a weak running defense are pace of play and how it could open up the play action passing game. Overall the Redskins of course want teams to be throwing on them more as that is clearly where their defensive talent lies, but if the run defense woes are so bad that they start selling out to try to contain the running game, it could leave them exposed on the backend at times. This will be the biggest concern of course when they face talented passing games as well, but it is something to watch out for.
Pace of play can be a concern throughout the game if the Redskins are allowing grind it out 12-15 play drives that eat up 6-9 minutes of clock. That can put extra pressure on your offense to move the ball if for no other reason than to not force a tired defense back onto the field. The bigger concern though is of course late in the game. If it’s a close one or two score game, the last thing the Redskins need is to allow their opponents to eat clock and not let them get the ball back, or get the ball back without enough time to score. This is a real concern and it could be a deciding factor in a number of close games.
The biggest reason why the run defense struggles are the Redskins biggest hurdle this season, comes down to their schedule and the number of tough running teams that they face. Already we’ve seen what one of those teams, the Steelers did to them at home, but it doesn’t get any easier from here.
In their own division the Redskins face perhaps the best offensive line/running back combo in the league in the Dallas Cowboys (including this week). Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris are two talented backs, and they are going to be running behind the league’s best offensive line. They pose a major threat that if not contained could allow the Cowboys to steal at least one game. The Eagles don’t get the same hype as the Cowboys, but their rushing threat this season should be pretty strong. Running back Ryan Mathews has always maintained a high yards per carry, and the Eagles bolstered an already good offensive line with top guard Brandon Brooks. Luckily the Giants appear weak again in their rushing attack so there is a reprieve there.
Outside the division the Redskins face five additional big rushing threats in the Vikings, Panthers, Cardinals, Packers and Bengals. Adrian Peterson is still one of the best backs in the league and while he struggled weak one versus the Titans without his quarterback, it’s way too soon to consider him “contained”. Carolina was 2nd in the league in rushing yards last season and have two threats that can beat you in Jonathan Stewart and of course Cam Newton. The Cardinals have a three headed monster at running back with David Johnson, Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington. It allows them to beat you in a variety of ways and it also means that even when they give David Johnson a break they pose a threat to run the football.
Even with Eddie Lacy out of shape last season the Packers still managed a good 4.2 yards per carry. With Lacy potentially back to his old ways, and a quality back-up in James Starks, the Packers rushing threat is not going to be easily contained. The Bengals last year struggled some running the football, but two years ago the 1-2 punch of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard were top 10 in the league in rushing and remain a top threat. Anyone of these teams could grind out the Redskins on the ground and four of them have excellent passing games as well.
Additionally there are two other teams in the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears that pose intriguing threats as well. The Lions’ Ameer Abdullah was better down the stretch last season averaging 4.7 ypc in the second half of the year. With Detroit adding to their OL in the draft, Abdullah and Theo Riddick could pose a decent threat on the ground. The Bears also improved their offensive line this offseason both in the draft and signing former Packers guard Josh Sitton. Second year back Jeremy Langford showed some flashes last season and he could be a good back behind this improved offensive line.
Overall that is a brutal schedule of running threats the Redskins have to face this season as 9 of their remaining 15 games should be against teams with very good or better rushing attacks. That isn’t even counting the potential threats the Redskins face from the Bears and Lions, which shouldn’t be easily dismissed. Given what they showed week one versus the Steelers, the Redskins run defense is going to be a serious liability. Take the Cowboys and Eagles games. The Redskins on paper should be considered the better team, but with those rushing threats it could be tough to sweep those four games. If they go 2-2 or even 3-1 in those games, it will mean that they really have to beat the Giants twice and possibly pick up another game elsewhere. If the Redskins defense doesn’t tighten up it could make it very hard to finish with a winning record, or make the playoffs.
Steve is the founder of Fanspeak.com. Check out Fanspeak's sweet On the Clock Premium and Ultimate GM tools.