Can Chris Thompson be Washington Redskins’ answer at third-down running back?

Jason Reid
Columnist August 1

The Washington Redskins are no closer to naming a third-down running back than they were before training camp began. Although it could be a while before the position is filled, the Redskins are optimistic about the in-house candidates. Chris Thompson heads the list.

The diminutive second-year player (he’s generously listed at 5 foot 7) possesses big-play speed and runs routes well. For a role in which players are primarily used as receivers out of the backfield, those are key attributes. Among Thompson’s many supporters in the organization, Pro Bowl running back Alfred Morris may be his most vocal.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

“Man, he’s a change-of-pace player,” Morris said. “He . . . has gears other guys don’t have. He’s very fast, he’s very elusive, and he’s a good route-runner.

“You blink once; he’s gone. He’s displaying that. I don’t know if you guys [reporters] have been paying attention.”

When Thompson is on the field in 11-on-11 drills, it’s hard not to notice. On Thursday, he seemed well suited to shoulder more responsibility, bursting through a small hole on the left side for a nifty run. Later in the session, Thompson caught a short pass from quarterback Robert Griffin III and outraced the defense. Thompson received a congratulatory pat on the helmet from Griffin, who’s challenging Morris to become Thompson’s top cheerleader.

The Post Sports Live crew looks at Robert Griffin III's 2013 statistics and debates how much improvement would constitute a successful 2014 season. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Despite his lack of size, Thompson is a surprisingly productive runner “between the tackles,” Griffin said. “But if you really want him to go out there and do what he can do . . . [let him] come out of the backfield and run routes, be a change-of-pace back for us. He’s dynamically fast.”

Based on his production, you would think Thompson should be a lock for the job. Here’s the problem: Observe him in pass protection drills, and his footing doesn’t seem as solid.

On a third-down back’s to-do list, picking up the blitz is No. 1. Thompson will have to get much better at it. In one-on-one drills, running backs try to prevent linebackers and defensive backs from touching a tackling dummy, which represents the quarterback. Thompson struggles against bigger players — basically everyone else on the roster.

He needs work on reading blitzes, too. That was evident after Thompson took the wrong angle twice and blitzers eluded him. Unless he makes strides in that area, Thompson likely will be a no-down back.

“A lot of blitzes come on those third-down situations,” Thompson said. “I have to be able to pick up the [proper blocking] technique.”

Getting his stance right is the key. By widening it and properly bracing for collision, Thompson could fare better against power rushers. It works for Philadelphia Eagles third-down back Darren Sproles. Listed at 5 feet 6, Sproles has blocked well enough to emerge as an integral player for three teams over a nine-year NFL career. Redskins coaches made sure Thompson is aware of Sproles’s achievements.

“Certainly, you want to be a weapon,” offensive coordinator Sean McVay said. “You want to be a guy who can catch the ball.

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Redskins new head coach is the opposite of their former head coach. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

“But if you’re going to play in that third-down role, you have to be able to pick up the blitz. You can’t get to [the fun part] until you take care of that.”

Thompson also must take care of his body. His past three seasons have been cut short by injury. He’s physically sound now and focused on the present.

“The job is a combination of running, catching passes and blocking,” Thompson said. “I’ve got to hone all those skills.”

Thompson’s competitors are attempting to do the same. Veterans Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster and rookies Silas Redd and Lache Seastrunk are in the mix.

Neither Helu nor Royster possess the speed coaches prefer in specialists. Redd is more of an all-purpose runner. Seastrunk might have the furthest to go in pass protection. No matter who wins the competition, the Redskins need more production on third down.

Although Morris has rushed for almost 2,900 yards in two seasons, he has not been a big part of the passing game. Last fall, Washington’s running backs combined for just 45 catches. Across the league, 17 running backs had more than 45 receptions. Griffin, for one, expects much better results.

“We know we didn’t have an effective out-of-the-backfield passing attack last year. It’s safe to say that,” Griffin said. “It opens things up for us, and the quarterback as well, if you have [running backs] out in the passing routes.”

That’s a fact. The Redskins have been missing something. A productive third-down back could finally help them find it.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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