It took only a season for Matt Jones to jump from a rookie backup to a leader at running back for the Washington Redskins. After the departure of Alfred Morris and a shoulder injury to Chris Thompson, Jones has guided the pack of young and hungry backs during offseason practices the past two weeks.
The Redskins will be expecting a similar leap from the 23-year-old on the field despite a shaky first season. There were ball security issues. There were “leveling off” issues, as he described them, in which he didn’t burst through holes. There were inconsistency issues. Although Wednesday’s practice was non-contact, Jones showed improvement in certain facets and room to grow in others during his continued development as a starting NFL running back.
“I definitely want to show Redskins nation that I’m capable of being a No. 1 back all the time,” Jones said. “That’s the approach I take every day I touch the field to be great. Not necessarily just to show people, but I want to be great for myself anyways.”
He began by addressing his fumbling problem — five (four lost) in 13 games — during the offseason. Jones was tied for the third most at his position last year, including two during his first three NFL games. He was so frustrated with this problem that he looked up how former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber combatted his fumbling issues more than a decade ago.
The Florida product said he improved by mimicking how Barber carried the ball, tucking the ball high and inside late last year. His only fumble during his final four games last season — he missed the final three games, including the playoff contest, because of a hip issue — came on a bizarre reception, not a run. Still, he wasn’t comfortable with how he carried the ball.
“I knew that I had a little problem, but I didn’t know how to go about it because we were in the season and there’s not enough time to work on it,” Jones said. “I know I had a problem, and I knew I was letting people down, too, so I took that as motivation to show them that I can hold the ball.”
Running backs coach Randy Jordan gave Jones a special football, made by High and Tight Football, to help work on his grip. He said if the ball beeps, it signals when Jones has properly gripped it and covered all the points of pressure. Jones also found a comfortable position to hold the ball as a result, keeping the ball tight but right around his chest. He said it broke the habit Jones had of dangling the ball away from his body in his left hand, which caused some of his turnovers. While the Redskins’ defense has emphasized producing fumbles during offseason practices, Jones said he has noticed a difference.
“If he’s putting the ball down now, we have problems,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said. “It’s been talked about, and it’s been worked on. Fundamentally, we drill them. We’ve got a special ball for him. We’ve got all kinds of things to help him out, mainly focus on the ball not just when he’s in contact or in the line of scrimmage but also outside of contact where he had a lot of trouble last year.”
Jones didn’t use his size to his advantage, listed at 6-foot-1 and 231 pounds, and often either bounced runs outside the tackles or hesitated between the tackles. Jones gained 490 yards on 144 carries last year, but he felt he left a lot of yardage on the field. During the team’s first play in 11-on-11 drills, Jones veered right on a carry and exploded back inside to accelerate through a huge hole in the A gap.
“That’s what I call leveling off, getting downfield faster, not delaying runs and waiting on a cut to happen,” Jones said. “I just get a feeling and run full speed. I feel like a big part of my game is when I got my shoulders squared and running downhill at a [defensive back] or something, it’s kind of difficult for them to try and tackle me. But last year when I was running to the side, it was easy for them to tackle me.”
Jones feels more relaxed knowing what his role will be this season. He felt the pressure to perform last year splitting time with Morris, who played a key role in mentoring him as a rookie.
“I felt like if I had a bad game, the next game I wouldn’t get so many carries,” Jones said. “If I had a good game, I felt like I had to put so much pressure on myself to have a good game again. It was a lot of highs and lows.”
During the first team’s final snap of practice, Jones dropped a touchdown catch during a two-minute period. Last year, Jones said that error would have festered in his mind and impacted his performance. That won’t be the case during Thursday’s practice.
“I would’ve came back and had a bad practice,” Jones said. “I would’ve been thinking about that ball on the ground that I drop as a big opportunity that I had. Now I approach it as I’m going to get that play back.
“Next time, I’ll know how to get up and catch it.”