The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Adrian Peterson has given new life to the Redskins’ running game, and vice versa

Adrian Peterson rushed for 149 yards Sunday and is on pace for more than 1,300 yards this season.
Adrian Peterson rushed for 149 yards Sunday and is on pace for more than 1,300 yards this season. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — In cobbling together a three-game winning streak, the Washington Redskins have learned to write with the opposite hand, swallow food before chewing and make boring football seem exciting. Okay, moderately interesting. Okay, tolerable. They’re a really good bad football team, or they’re a really bad good football team. It’s perplexing. They’re perplexing.

The more you break them down, the less sense they make. For the first time under Coach Jay Gruden, they have failed to reach 200 net passing yards in three straight games. And they have won them all. This is also the first time under Gruden that they have rushed for at least 130 yards in three straight games. So here’s the baffling conclusion: As the season has progressed and exploited that Washington can’t pass, as the offense has become more predictable and dependent on the run, this limited team has managed to get better. This is one fascinating 5-2 enigma.

Washington keeps winning. But it’s so ugly that it must keep explaining itself.

“I think there is a lot more we can get done, especially offensively,” Gruden admitted after Sunday’s 20-13 victory over the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium.

Adrian Peterson run seals Redskins’ 20-13 win over Giants, gives Washington its third straight victory

This isn’t the kind of team Gruden aspires to coach. However, he has benefited from being forced to adjust and funnel his creativity into one effective area. Sometimes Gruden can get lost in his own innovation, calling too many fancy plays and wanting to try too many things. Right now, there is a lot this offense can’t do, especially when it comes to throwing the ball down the field. But with Adrian Peterson as the leading tailback, with quarterback Alex Smith as a threat to run and with a collection of swift complementary playmakers, Washington has intriguing options in the running game. And the offensive coaches are thriving by diversifying their run calls, throwing short passes that serve as extensions to the rushing attack and keeping defenses off balance by being imaginative even within the confines of limitation.

Conventional wisdom suggests that defenses will load up on Peterson and the running game because Washington has struggled to throw. But seven games is still a small sample size, and opponents still have a healthy respect for the explosiveness of Gruden’s system. Eventually, Washington will need to be more balanced, and that time may arrive sooner than imagined because the schedule will present more foes — starting with Atlanta this week — who can score and force the Redskins to play from behind, which has been a real problem in losses to Indianapolis and New Orleans this season. But for now, it has been an underrated thrill to watch the team work around its deficiencies with a multifaceted rushing attack.

“It keeps the defense on their heels,” said Peterson, who has 587 rushing yards in seven games. “They don’t know if you’re coming down, if it’s coming out the gun, if it’s trap or counter or speed option. So that makes it hard on them. For us, we just have to call in our plays and try to execute them.”

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The system has allowed Peterson to prove that he is more than a classic I-formation, downhill running back. As football has evolved, as Peterson has aged, he has been labeled a dinosaur in that way. It was a point of contention near the end of his days in Minnesota, which seemed to perform better in the shotgun, except for when Peterson was on the field. It was an issue during Peterson’s disastrous short stint in New Orleans last season before he moved on to Arizona. In Washington, however, he has done all the runs, out of all the formations, without complaint. While Gruden wisely tailors what he calls to Peterson’s strengths, the 33-year-old running back has also looked decent doing what had been deemed uncomfortable. The combination of power and finesse has added a layer to the offense. In addition, Peterson has been better than advertised as a receiver.

“I don’t really know where it came from that he can’t run certain plays,” left tackle Trent Williams said of Peterson. “Every running back in the league should be able to run every running play. There’s not that many to choose from. He can do everything anybody asked him to do. That’s never been a question.

“But his importance to this offense is just as important as anybody to any offense. He’s one of those guys that we lean on, especially when we have a 10-point lead, and you need to close the game out, that’s who we’re going to go to.”

Peterson, as usual, is unfazed by past criticism. He will smile when you point out that he is doing something that others said he couldn’t. But that’s it. No gloating. He is only halfway through the season. He has nine more games this season and plenty left to prove.

“At the end of the day, it is what it is,” said Peterson, who rushed for 149 yards Sunday and is on pace for 1,342 this season. “People want to always have something that they find out, that they point out, that you might not be as good at. So I understand that. But when I’m given any opportunity, when I’m in any position and running out of any formation, I’m taking advantage of it.”

Adrian Peterson continues to impress Redskins teammates with another huge game

You saw Washington at its game-closing best during Peterson’s 64-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter Sunday. That play was perfectly blocked by the entire offensive line, with guard Brandon Scherff pulling and taking out Giants safety Landon Collins to spring Peterson free. After the game, the linemen compared it to a home run hitter barreling up a baseball. It felt that good. In football, rarely is a play executed so cleanly.

“You never expect that to happen like that, because it’s the NFL,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “You always tell yourself, ‘Okay, leave one for the back to make him miss.’ But to be able to see your running back hit the hole and not lose a stride — in the NFL? — I tell you, man, it’s a great feeling.”

Afterward, Gruden called Scherff “the best puller in the league.” Pulling is a blocking concept in which the lineman runs from his spot and takes on an assignment on the opposite side of the field. He must run smoothly behind his fellow linemen, sprint ahead of the running back and take out a defender in space. It requires exquisite technique, athleticism and a mauler’s attitude. The Washington line is blessed with several players who move with such power and coordination, but this was Scherff’s day to be praised.

“And when Scherff pulls around there,” Williams said, “he usually pounces on guys.”

When Chris Thompson returns to form after injuries to his ribs and knee, Washington will be that much more dynamic in the running game. He carried three times and produced 13 yards against the Giants. Smith also had 13 yards. Wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. contributed a seven-yard run. It added up to 182 yards and 5.5 yards per rush.

Opponents will have to adjust, which could open up opportunities in the passing game. Or if Washington still can’t pass, it will get nothing accomplished on offense. That time is coming. Smith completed 20 of 32 passes for just 178 yards against New York. He threw one touchdown pass and didn’t turn the ball over. He missed some throws, and even some of his completions were ugly. He has to improve, the players around him have to improve, and Gruden has to scheme around them better.

In the meantime, they will learn to enjoy being Gruden’s Grinders.

“If we get the ball to AP, great things are going to happen,” tight end Jordan Reed said.

They have to build around Peterson before they wear him out. That’s a concern. With this team, there are always concerns, no matter the win-loss record.

But a streak is a streak. And as unremarkable as the team appears, it is developing a few consistent good habits.