One play didn’t sum up running back Alfred Morris’s rookie season, though one example certainly helps. During the Redskins’ game against Atlanta last October, Morris noticed that Falcons outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon tended to overcommit to the outside on running plays.
So Morris set him up on a run to the right. Morris’s path made it appear he’d continue outside. Sure enough, Weatherspoon raced hard to the outside, creating more of a cutback lane than the Falcons wanted. Morris broke an arm tackle at his feet after five yards and stiff-armed his way to another five yards at the end of the run.
Morris used his smarts and patience and showed his ability to break tackles — all on one run. Even more noteworthy was that he gained the yards on a straightforward running play. He did not gain them as the result of a fake run by Robert Griffin III on what in football jargon is known as a zone-read option in which the quarterback has the option of keeping the ball or handing it off to his running back.
When trying to assess how much of Morris’s success last year was due to the unique threat posed by Griffin and how much was the result of his own talents, it’s instructive to look back on how he gained his yards in 2012, when he finished second in the NFL in rushing with 1,613 yards.
Morris gained 334 yards on 57 zone-read running plays last season. Take away those runs and Morris still would have gained 1,279 yards in the regular season — enough to have ranked him seventh in the league.
Morris was not Adrian Peterson, the league’s top rusher. His longest run was 39 yards; every other back in the top nine posted a longer run and five had gains of at least 70 yards. Those runs pad totals; Morris’s totals stemmed from consistency.
“He’s not a flashy player,” said one defensive coach who requested anonymity because his team faces the Redskins this season. “He got a lot of his yards after contact. He earned it. That’s what good players do. . . . I didn’t see him every game, but it was rare I ever saw him tackled in the backfield.”
While the running and passing threat posed by Griffin clearly benefitted Morris, the Redskins quarterback himself benefitted from having a legitimate threat at running back. It’s in part why the zone-read play-action fakes — in which Griffin faked the run and then dropped back to pass — worked so well; there were two threats defenses had to contend with before the pass.
Morris “is a unique talent. He can make people miss, and very few people can make people miss consistently,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “He has the type of power, leg drive you like in a running back and, knock on wood, he has been able to stay away from injury taking those kind of shots. It’s the low center of gravity and how he runs. Hopefully he can keep on doing that.”
Morris’s run against Atlanta last year wasn’t the only time he showcased subtle skills that led to a long run. A 39-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay in Week 4did the same. The Buccaneers deployed seven defenders close to the line of scrimmage, and six of them moved to the right at the snap, following Morris’s path. Morris, after taking the handoff, waited until he was a yard behind the offensive linemen before slicing to his left. The result: All six defenders were out of the play.
In his NFL debut against New Orleans, Morris rushed for 96 yards on 28 carries. But it could have been more. Several times a cutback lane was clogged because of a missed block. Other times Morris was not as patient setting up the cutback runs, failing to help the offensive line.
“I left a lot of yards on the field,” Morris said of not just this game, but his season.
But Morris showed some of his strength in the game. On a three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Saints linebacker David Hawthorne filled the hole and met Morris at the 1-yard line. But Morris lowered his pads, drove through Hawthorne and scored. It was classic Morris: low pads, strong leg drive. Both attributes of a good back.
That’s not to say the zone-read didn’t help Morris. It did, as did the presence of Griffin. When defenses are afraid of the quarterback running, they must pay him close attention and would rather give up five or six yards to a back than 15 to the quarterback.
The zone-read is a tricky play for defenses to consistently stop because of the multiple options it provides an offense. Teams didn’t know when it was coming because the Redskins ran it out of several formations, from which they could run other plays too.
“I don’t have any problem with them thinking the zone-read helped our run game, there’s no doubt it did,” Redskins right tackle Tyler Polumbus said. “That being said, Alfred Morris is a heck of a running back and he’ll succeed in any system. He’s as good a back as any I’ve been around.”
Griffin said many factors went into Morris’s success — not the least of which was Morris himself.
“You can say the offensive line, you can say me, you can say the receivers blocking,” Griffin said, “but that doesn’t take away from the player that he is, because it doesn’t matter how big the hole is, there are still guys out there trying to hit him, and he’s bouncing off them.”