Washington Redskins running backs understand the situation: The race is for second place. No matter what happens in the preseason, standout second-year back Alfred Morris is the Redskins’ starter — and the 1,600-yard rusher prefers to stay busy.
The competition to become Morris’s primary backup probably ended Saturday in a 30-7 victory over Buffalo. Roy Helu Jr. took the lead during the first two preseason games and appeared to pull away with another solid performance at FedEx Field.
With Evan Royster — Helu’s top challenger — inactive because of a sprained ankle, Helu made big plays rushing and receiving. A nonfactor last season because of injuries and the emergence of Morris, Helu seems on track to revive his career in Washington.
There isn’t much intrigue surrounding the team’s wide receivers. The group was pretty much set from the first day of training camp, though it’s still unclear whether Josh Morgan or Leonard Hankerson will start opposite Pierre Garcon. Regardless, wideout is a position of strength, which was clear again against the Bills.
On defense, Redskins cornerbacks need to keep working on deep coverage. That’s always an area of concern in the pass-first-and-often NFL. The Redskins’ improved pass rush should help the secondary a lot this season.
The team’s running game seems complete with Morris and Helu in the top two spots. Let’s take a look at Helu’s strong closing kick.
Helu has been highly efficient and productive throughout training camp and the preseason. Again on Saturday, Helu capitalized on his opportunities while displaying the type of speed Redskins coaches want in Morris’s change-of-pace backup. He rushed for 70 yards with a 5.4-yard average.
It’s often hard to determine the value of statistics in the preseason because first-stringers play little. What’s easy to gauge, however, is the quickness Helu showed while juking two would-be tacklers on a 17-yard rush in the second quarter. A potential third-down back needs to be sure-handed. Helu fit the description on his nifty 21-yard reception along the left sideline in the first quarter.
As a rookie in 2011, Helu proved he could help the Redskins. In fact, Helu rushed for at least 100 yards in three straight games that season. Helu still has to prove he can stay on the field, which he failed to do in 2012 while playing in only three games because of a bothersome toe problem.
Morris had 335 rushes last season. Royster had the next highest total among Redskins backs: 23. The Redskins plan for Morris to remain the focus of their running game. Helu has a lot to offer as well. Barring a surprise, he’ll get another chance to deliver.
As for Royster, he could get caught in the backfield roster crunch. Running back Keiland Williams’s push for a spot on the opening 53-man roster won’t help Royster. Against the Bills, Williams, who’s a solid special-teams contributor, ran hard and averaged 6.5 yards on eight carries.
The next step for Washington’s offense is for its passing game to become as productive as the team’s league-leading rushing attack. The pieces are in place to make it happen.
Third-string quarterback Rex Grossman completed passes to nine players in the first half against the Bills. The best news for the Redskins is that Garcon has showed no signs of the foot problem that slowed him last season.
Garcon has emerged as a true No. 1 receiver. Garcon’s speed is a major problem for opposing defensive backs whether in long- or short-field situations. In the first quarter, Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore had no chance against Garcon, who scored easily on a seven-yard slant pattern.
Even after all these years, Santana Moss still has a knack for breaking free from coverage. Moss doesn’t make a big deal out of his film-study work (he’s not the type to pat himself on the back), but Moss is among the best on the team at identifying coverage and locating holes in the secondary. Moss had a 45-yard reception against the Bills.
Morgan and Hankerson could share the other starting position. Entering camp, the coaching staff wanted Hankerson to be more consistent in, well, everything. Hankerson has done enough to remain in the mix for a first-string gig with only one preseason game remaining.
Keep an eye on Aldrick Robinson (four receptions for 61 yards). Offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan likes big plays. Robinson has the speed to run past people.
On his first play of the preseason, cornerback Josh Wilson, trying to regain form after having shoulder surgery in the offseason, was called for pass interference on a deep pass. Wilson was the team’s best cover corner last season. He has to get enough work to be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener against Philadelphia.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett needs Wilson and fellow veteran corner DeAngelo Hall to help him guide inexperienced players in the secondary. Rookie safety Bacarri Rambo and rookie cornerback David Amerson, also called for a penalty in deep coverage Saturday, are expected to have prominent roles. The loss of second-year corner and punt returner Richard Crawford, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Saturday, means Wilson and Hall will have to shoulder more.
The encouraging thing for the Redskins is that Wilson wasn’t nearly as rusty as he could have been under the circumstances. Amerson has had more good moments than bad in coverage this preseason. In the game, the Bills had 63 yards passing.
Helu has made a strong statement. His reemergence is among the most important developments of the preseason. The roster picture is becoming clearer with only one preseason game remaining. And for the Redskins, it’s looking good.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.