For so much of the time that Mike Shanahan coached in Denver, the defining image of the Broncos wasn’t so much John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback, but a group of offensive linemen, each moving in conjunction with the man next to him, a bit of choreographed beauty. Shanahan’s offense was run first, run second, run them into the ground.
But during a disappointing first season as the Washington Redskins’ coach, Shanahan appeared to get away from the running game. During his 14 years in Denver, no team ran for more yards than the Broncos. In 2010, the Redskins ranked 30th in a 32-team league.
“We need to get better in that area,” Shanahan said early in training camp.
Through the first three games of the preseason, they appear to be on the way. The Redskins lead the NFL with 152.3 yards per game on the ground. A year after attempting fewer than 22 rushes per game — an average exceeded by all but one team — they have run 30.7 times per game. The line, at times, has looked like those old groups from Denver — getting out to the edges of a play in unison, setting up their blocks and holding each one of them, allowing backs such as Tim Hightower and rookie Roy Helu to cut back for big gains.
It is only the preseason. But the improvement — and potential for more — seems obvious to coaches and players.
“The players know what to expect,” Shanahan said. “They’re kind of familiar with the terminology. They’re a little bit more familiar with each other. The coaches have had a year to make sure that we’re all on the same page.”
Washington’s players also are much more familiar with the zone blocking Shanahan demands. In Shanahan’s ideal offense, the linemen are quick and agile. Their first step often comes not into the man in front of them, but to the side to which the play is intended to go. And even if a play is, say, headed to the right, the left side of the line knows it must hold its blocks, too, because the running back is encouraged to plant one foot and cut back to the opposite side.
“A lot of those plays, if the front side’s not there, we’re counting on the back side being open just as much as the front side,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “Everybody down the line knows that it could be their block on any play that springs him.”
Lichtensteiger, listed at 6 feet 2, 292 pounds, was perhaps the first indication that Shanahan felt it necessary to overhaul the Redskins’ line. Three games into the 2010 season, he replaced Derrick Dockery, a 6-6, 325-pound veteran, an indication that smaller could be perceived as better. Now, Lichtensteiger and left tackle Trent Williams, the 2010 first-round draft pick, have a full season of working together, and they appear in sync.
“It’s a lot better this year,” Williams said. “We got a line that’s tailor-made for zone blocking if we execute. Everybody just moves very well side to side and can get up on the second level real good. We just got a bunch of linemen who can move.”
That has allowed space for Hightower, the fourth-year back out of Richmond acquired in a July 31 trade with Arizona. “I felt comfortable in this system from the first day I was here,” Hightower said.
It showed most perfectly in Thursday’s preseason game at Baltimore, when Hightower took a handoff and headed right, got through the line, then darted left. Williams had exploded off the line of scrimmage, and he sealed off Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Add a block from wide receiver Terrence Austin downfield, and Hightower was off on a 37-yard touchdown run — exactly the kind of play Shanahan expects his running game to provide.
“Those big plays [are] a combination of a lot of people working together, the back side of the formation really has to be in tune and staying with their blocks,” Shanahan said. “They’re so fast in the National Football League, it’s hard to get those long runs unless everybody’s working together.”
For now, at least, the Redskins appear to be doing that.