The rough start was emblematic of the team’s difficulty running the ball through two games, which has prompted the coaching staff to search for other means to get early-down yardage.
“We self-destruct,” running backs coach Randy Jordan said. “We haven’t had a series of plays where we were all working on the same page. … That’s the thing about offense: It don’t take but one guy to screw it up. Whereas on defense, it takes one guy to make you right.”
There hasn’t been any one area to point at when evaluating the lackluster running game. One play it’s a penalty. One play it’s a missed block. Another snap may be a bad read or a lack of patience by the runner.
Either way, early-down rushes by Week 1 starter Derrius Guice, who is on injured reserve following surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and current starter Adrian Peterson have put the offense behind the chains and in a bad position to convert third downs. Of 11 first-down touches for Peterson last week, including two receptions, only three resulted in a gain of four yards or more. Six resulted in no gain or a loss, including two penalties. The other two were two-yard gains. Those early-down issues have contributed to the Redskins ranking 21st in the league in third-down efficiency (31.8 percent).
Peterson acknowledged the Redskins have been working on the entire operation since before training camp, but he hopes that “with time, it comes.”
The run deficiencies led to tweaks by the coaching staff. Chris Thompson received 28 snaps compared with Peterson’s 18 against the Cowboys, and the offense expanded with screens, short passes and more calls to test the perimeter. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Steven Sims Jr. received back-to-back handoffs — the first on a jet sweep and the second on an inside misdirection play.
Guice and Peterson are considered the team’s top backs, but Thompson has been the most heavily used of the group, in part because the Redskins have been playing from behind.
“Obviously, AP is AP and you want to feature him in the run game,” Jordan said of Peterson, “but off of that you still have guys that can make a difference in the run game either by screening or by giving … the ball to them in a quick manner out in the flats, swing routes, those kind of routes.”
Coach Jay Gruden added, “Keep the defense off balance a little bit and utilize some of the speed and weapons that we have.”
Creativity in the run game is a necessity if the traditional stuff isn’t working. Guice managed just 18 yards on 10 carries in the opener, and Peterson finished with 25 yards on 10 attempts last week. Thompson was targeted eight times against the Cowboys and caught five passes for 48 yards.
The Redskins rank 30th in the league with 37.5 rushing yards per game, and the lack of early-down success frequently puts them in challenging second- and third-down situations.
“The statistics might not look like we ran the ball or the attempts weren’t there, but I know sometimes you have to,” offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said. “... You have to use the quick game and the screen game as extensions of your run game. Especially against really good defenses that aren’t going to just give you the first- and second-down runs you maybe wanted going into the game.”
The most common correction mentioned has been a focus on fundamentals. For the running backs, that means technique, footwork and vision. For the offensive line, it means getting movement with double teams, getting blockers to the second level of the defense and achieving better timing and chemistry with two new starters on the left side. Once those basics are established, creative play-calling can help loosen up the defense.
“As players, we’ve got to be able to run the ball well enough for Jay to believe that he can rely on it,” Thompson said. “Because we might get a six-yard run but then the next two or three may be one or two yards; sometimes as a play caller it gets hard and kind of gets frustrating for him.”
Creative schemes help, but Thompson points back to the individual. The seventh-year veteran thinks penalties and miscues have built on each other — the team’s 18 penalties over two games are tied for seventh most in the NFL — because it’s human nature for players to try to make up for mistakes.
“I think that’s what it’s all about, your focus and the details,” Thompson said. “You can’t lose track of what your job is and think, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do more.’ … You can never get yourself flustered and all aggravated in situations because there’s going to be ups and downs and you just have got to keep yourself focused on the goal, and that’s to win and that’s to be as consistent as you possibly can.”