While watching Robert Griffin III during the preseason, one thought came to mind: The Washington Redskins may have to lean heavily on their running game. Fortunately for them, they have one of the league’s best.
Running back Alfred Morris is durable and productive. Fullback Darrel Young performs better than many at his position. And Washington’s offensive line, which rarely inspires confidence in pass protection, is top-shelf in run blocking. Coach and play-caller Jay Gruden can rely on that group, and with Griffin experiencing growing pains in the pocket, he should early in the season.
Washington opens on the road Sunday against the Houston Texans, whose defense is anchored by two-time all-pro lineman J.J. Watt — the league’s 2012 defensive player of the year. Rookie outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney has shown flashes of the talent that prompted the team to make him the first overall selection in May’s NFL draft, and Houston has other playmakers on defense.
It’s said a strong running game is a quarterback’s best friend. Griffin, who has a lot to prove as he attempts to transition to a new style of play, needs as many friends as he can get against the Texans.
For most teams, it’s important to have success in the running game. Just as in life, balance is good for an offense. But with Griffin’s shakiness in the pocket, Washington could benefit from making Morris the focal point of its opening game plan.
Playing quarterback is an art form. During the preseason, Griffin painted by numbers. He looked uncomfortable and appeared to lack confidence in what may be a long process for the NFL’s 2012 offensive rookie of the year to develop primarily into a pocket passer.
Essentially, Griffin is learning a new position at the sport’s highest level. He previously had little pre-snap responsibility and wasn’t required to read defenses as much as he must in Gruden’s offense. Griffin has displayed smarts and a strong work ethic (“He definitely has the ability to do this,” Gruden says). What he’s being asked to do is difficult, however, which is why team officials have tried to temper expectations about the move for months. Gruden has been supportive — but the time for hand-holding is over.
The games matter now. Gruden is being paid well to win. It would be foolish to devise a pass-heavy approach, which would expose Griffin to a formidable pass rush, to kick off the season. Washington’s sharp leader doesn’t seem to be the type to make silly mistakes.
“If we get behind and it turns into a drop-back pass fest, it won’t be pretty,” Gruden said. “It’s very important for us to stick with the run, run the ball and do the best we can . . . to take some pressure off our quarterback.”
And put some on the Texans’ defense. Nothing frustrates a defense more than failing to stop a rushing attack. Generally, an offensive line controls the game if it controls the line of scrimmage. When Washington was at its best the past two seasons, that’s the way it rolled.
Morris is a powerful runner. If Young and the line consistently clear the way for Morris on stretch-zone plays, a staple of the team’s offense the past four seasons, Houston’s defense likely would face problems — and Griffin would remain upright.
“That’s what we do well,” right tackle Tyler Polumbus said of the team’s successful zone-read system, in which linemen block an area rather than a specific player.
“We want to continue to do that well. As long as we’re running the ball, we’re going to have a chance.”
In NFL history, only eight players rushed for more yards in their first two seasons than the 2,888 Morris produced. He also scored 20 touchdowns and had an impressive 4.7-yard average.
“Alfred makes a lot of five-yard runs into 10-yard runs,” said right guard Chris Chester, who is highly effective on stretch-zone runs.
“That’s his strength. . . . Against a good front — Watt, Clowney — running the ball is going to be important for us to maintain a good flow on offense.”
And if both the offense and defense are flowing well, Griffin could just manage the game, which probably would be best for him and the team. It would make sense for Gruden to reduce Griffin’s role, as much as possible for a starting quarterback in a West Coast offense, at least until Griffin proves he’s becoming settled in the pocket.
It seems to be lost on many fans of the team — and Griffin as well — that Griffin is attempting to remake himself while also learning a complex offense that’s based on timing and rhythm.
Throughout the offseason program and training camp, Griffin often did himself a disservice by playing down the differences in what was required of him under the former coaching regime and this one. It’s okay for Griffin to take baby steps and struggle. He should merely acknowledge that’s what he has to do.
For Gruden, the preseason should have provided a wake-up call about how far Griffin needs to go while primarily staying put. But Washington’s offense still could get going as long as Morris remains on the move.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.