Washington Redskins running backs Alfred Morris and Tim Hightower made their team’s backfield battle a bit more interesting with strong performances in Saturday’s 30-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Two weeks ago, it looked as if second-year pro Evan Royster might win the starting job by default because of his health. Hightower still was working his way back from ACL surgery, Roy Helu Jr. was hobbled by bad Achilles’ tendons, and Morris was considered a candidate for the practice squad.
But Morris showed a flicker of promise with carries of 21 and seven yards to start the Chicago game last week. And then Royster this week tweaked his knee and missed two days of practice, while Helu remained sidelined. Meanwhile, Hightower was cleared for full action.
Morris got a second straight preseason start and erupted for 107 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries against Indianapolis’s starters. Hightower – playing for the first time since Oct. 23, 2011 – did well in limited action, rushing for 28 yards on five carries – also against the first-team defense.
Coach Mike Shanahan said the Redskins remain in “wait and see” mode as they try to select a starter. They have to see how Hightower’s knee responds to its most taxing workload since his surgery, and they must see how quickly Royster and Helu recover.
Royster said last week that he believed he was held out of Saturday’s game for precautionary reasons, and that he believed he could have played, so he likely will return to the field in short order. Helu, though, saw progress in his Achilles’ tendons last week but doesn’t seem poised for as speedy a return.
Shanahan conceded that depending on the recovery of the veteran backs, Morris could wind up as “the lonely soldier at the end,” but the coach hopes that’s not the case.
If healthy, Hightower, who opened last season as the starter, is the most well-rounded back on the roster.
Hightower said on Thursday that he continues to notice small improvements in his game – explosion, cutting ability, a response to contact – each time he steps on the field. He had a good burst on his first carry, when he took the handoff and showed a mix of speed, elusiveness and power on the 18-yard run.
“I wasn’t really worried about the knee,” he said. “I just got caught up in the crowd and what was going on, and just football – getting out there and playing football. The knee was fine. It just felt so good to be a part of it.”
Hightower played a total of 14 snaps and set Shanahan’s mind at ease with his performance. The veteran didn’t hobble back to the huddle after each play or shy away from contact, and he displayed good route-running ability on pass plays.
“I thought he did a great job,” Shanahan said. “I was a little nervous. I saw him get better during the week and I felt there was a chance he could play, but I thought it might be a long shot. Then I saw him a couple days ago and he looked much better, so I’m glad he was able to get some playing time in there. He looked good.”
Hightower admits that he still is not entirely healed. But he believes his goal is within reach.
“It’s the first step. It’s not the end of the road,” Hightower said. “I still have a lot of work today. It’s a lot of improvement. But I’m in the ballgame, I’m not on the sideline, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Meanwhile, opportunity is all that Morris could have asked for. A sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic University, he came into camp expecting to find carries hard to come by with three veterans ahead of him. But he continued to prepare in case he was ever called upon, and in both practices and games, he has been a natural fit in the Redskins’ zone-blocking scheme. Shanahan has also praised Morris’s determined running style and his knack for getting extra yards after contact.
Morris never doubted his ability, he says, but he was uncertain about his opportunities. Now that he has received as good a shot as any back on the team to display his talents, he doesn’t believe the goal of starting is unrealistic.
“I know what I’m capable of. I know I’m capable of being a starter,” Morris said. “I came from a small school, but I know my work ethic and I know my willingness and want-to to be great.”
Morris, who has now rushed for 39 times for 195 yards (5.0 yard per carry) and one touchdown, has earned veteran teammates’ confidence as well.
“Yeah, he can start,” left tackle Trent Williams said emphatically. “He put up 100 yards on a starting defense. He wasn’t going against no [second-string players] out there. Those were their [No.] 1s. He runs hard, no extra juking and jiving. One step, downhill. That’s what you need, especially in this offense.”
Said wide receiver Santana Moss: “I’ve been watching the guy since OTAs, how he runs, and since training camp. I knew he had potential. Just to put that type of stuff out there on film in a live game, you couldn’t ask for more. I told him to just keep it up. Especially being a young guy, especially being a Florida boy, I mess with him a lot, but I told him to keep it up.”