Redskins Running Game Poised for Explosion

By Lance Zierlein
July 21, 2012

Fantasy owners hope Mike Shanahan picks a favorite running back, but the Redskins look like a top three rushing team regardless of distribution.

A long time ago (2009), in a land far, far away (Houston), there was a man who played running back. This man had shown some flashes in college, but came into the league with no fanfare.

Despite starting the season on the practice squad, this running back was eventually given a chance to carry the ball behind an injured and maligned offensive line and the results were positive:

54 ATT 257 YDS 3 TDS 4.8 YPC

This player was Arian Foster.

The Texans weren’t completely buying into Foster so they drafted Ben Tate in the second round and brought Steve Slaton back to compete for the starting running back spot once again. A funny thing happened in camp and in the preseason—Arian Foster dominated.

Arian Foster stepped in and dominated when given the chance to be a lead back. Photo by: The_Brit_2

Foster proved that he could be a workhorse on the ground, be a weapon through the air and seal the deal in the redzone and the rest is history. In 2009 when Foster got his first taste of NFL carries, he averaged 4.8 ypc while the Texans rushed for 3.5 ypc as a team. That stat alone should have foreshadowed what was potentially to come.

We could see this same scenario play itself out once again with the Washington Redskins, but only if Mike Shanahan follows the path that Gary Kubiak followed with Foster.

Will Mike Shanahan Buy Into a Lead Back? Does it matter?

Proponents of the zone scheme believe that running backs are a dime a dozen. They believe that great running backs can do great things in this offense, but above average backs can do good things. It’s always cheaper to have two good backs instead of one great one. That’s the mindset.

While there is data to corroborate that philosophy, offenses are at their best when they have a single horse they lean more heavily on. Vision and tempo varies from runner to runner and the zone scheme is at its best when the running back and offensive line are all working in tandem and that comes from multiple reps.

When Arian Foster went out, Ben Tate stepped right in and posted strong numbers; however, the difference between the two backs was obvious once Foster came back. It is one thing to post strong numbers, but it is quite another to dominate a game.

I could easily be writing this article about Roy Helu or Evan Royster. Royster’s background and body type probably matches Foster more closely than Helu’s does. The difference to me is that Helu has better burst and a greater ability to affect games out of the backfield than Royster does. Foster’s ability to make plays out of the backfield (as well as vision) is a big part of who he is as a playmaker. I see Helu as the potential Foster and Royster as Ben Tate.

Evan Royster's body type is similar to Foster's, but Roy Helu has the unique ability to affect games. Photo by: Keith Allison

And to be clear, the lead runner should be Helu or Royster—it shouldn’t be Tim Hightower who is currently be bandied about as the likely starter. Hightower is nothing more than a grinder who limits the big-play potential of the Redskins rushing attack. If Shanahan decides on Helu or Royster as his lead back, they will be almost certainly have a big year.

RG3 Will Make the Zone Scheme Better

The zone scheme gets significantly better with experience. The Texans found that out from 2009 to 2010. The Redskins offensive line will be playing together for a second consecutive year and they know exactly what is expected from them in this offense. The understanding of how to execute a cut-block, use the proper angle and how to block in tandem.

Oh yeah, a rookie quarterback is also going to help too. You won’t hear that phrase often, but Robert Griffin, III is going to have a major impact on the running game for the Redskins.

The Redskins offense is based on the play-action game with the bootleg being featured prominently. The zone scheme (especially outside zone plays), helps to set up wide open opportunities for the quarterback with his play-action bootlegs. Similarly, a successful bootleg game can force defensive ends or weak-side linebackers to stay at home which helps to open things up for the running game.

With RG3 under center, defensive ends are going to be very aware of his ability to get outside the pocket on bootlegs and make big plays with his feet. Defensive coordinators will have to mix things up and “spy” him with a combination of defensive ends, linebackers and safeties.

The Atlanta Falcons lead the league in rushing for three straight years in part because of Michael Vick’s rushing yards, but also because the threat of Vick getting outside the pocket in the play-action attack opened up cutback lanes for Warrick Dunn.

Griffin will keep safeties off the line thanks to his deep ball ability and will keep backside defenders guessing thanks to his ability to tear off huge chunks of yardage with his feet. Add it all up and we are almost certain to see a monster year from Helu or Royster..... if Mike Shanahan gives one of them a chance to be the lead dog. If he goes with a committee approach, we are still likely to see the Redskins as one of the top three rushing teams in the league.