Redskins seek answers in run game as Alfred Morris' play time drops

Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden called Alfred Morris the lead man at running back. The play time and usage for Morris suggests otherwise. It could lead to his departure after the season but it also leads to a question. Is anyone really the lead back?

“Alfred is our No. 1 back and we’ll go from there,” Gruden said.

But the numbers aren’t that of a No. 1 back, which is why it’s worth wondering about this position over the next four weeks and into next season. The Redskins drafted Matt Jones in the third round and he’s shown flashes. But in his last 106 carries, dating to Week 2, he’s had one gain of 20 or more yards. Then again, in the last nine games covering 75 carries, Morris has two runs of 10 or more yards.

That’s one reason why the Redskins continue to rotate their backs and will do so down the stretch. One has to start, but they will go with whoever’s hot or with whomever offers a better look against a particular defense.

Monday, the Redskins wanted a little more speed to the outside, which meant more of Jones. But his most effective runs occurred up the middle, not to the outside.

“We don’t really have a specific plan on how many carries we want each guy to get. We try to go with the flow of the game and go from there,” Gruden said. “It just so happened that Matt Jones had a couple good hits in the game and we chose to play Matt a little bit more than Alfred.”

The reality is that Morris’ snaps have gone up and down quite a bit this season. He’s played four games with at least 30 snaps and six with 12 or fewer. In the last six games, he’s had four games with 10 or fewer, another with 25 and one more with 40.

Morris is averaging 21.2 plays per game from scrimmage compared to 35.8 last season (and 43.7 as a rookie). Sure, you can say he needs more touches. But he’s not doing a whole lot consistently with what he is getting: Morris, a free agent after the season, has averaged 2.0 yards or less in four of the last eight games in which he was available all game. He’s averaging only 3.5 yards per carry overall. In the games in which he’s reached double digits in carries, he averages 3.7.

Jones, meanwhile, averages 3.9 yards in games where he carries at least 10 times. For the season, Morris has carried the ball 141 times compared to 116 for Jones. The Redskins knew going into the season that Jones would get a lot of work. What they didn’t realize is that both backs would struggle. You can blame a variety of reasons from tight end blocking, an inexperienced line and the running backs not always doing their part.

But it has resulted in something less than the Redskins desired. So it’s not just a matter of trying to find the hot hand. That said, it’s hard to imagine Jones not getting more time if not for the fumbles and some growing pains (bouncing outside too often; lowering his pad level).

“It’s game-dependent, series-dependent, play-dependent,” Gruden said of their rotation. “A lot of times there’s certain runs that we feel like Alfred has more success at than Matt and there’s certain runs we feel Matt is better at than Alfred. And some of the runs we had were of the outside variety, and maybe we want a little bit more speed in there and Matt was the choice or Chris Thompson.

“[Monday] night, for whatever reason, Alfred didn’t get as many touches as Matt. We started out with every intention of giving Matt or Alfred the ball. We just didn’t get back to him.”

The real problem for Washington this season isn’t just about giving a guy more carries. It’s about getting them to have better carries. Another solution would be to ditch the run game emphasis because the issues that have plagued Washington most of the last month or two won't get solved over the final four weeks. So that could mean an increased emphasis on short throws to open drives -- safer passes that serve as extended handoffs.

"Maybe try to get in some pass situations and throw some draws in there. But we have to look at what we’re doing, we have to execute better obviously," Gruden said, "but we also have to look at when we’re calling plays and how we’re calling plays and put our guys in better positions to succeed and get the ball to our playmakers’ hands and figure out who those guys are and get them the ball.”