Predictability, blocking hurt Redskins run game

ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins know what they want to be on offense -- and they’ve known for a while. They want to run the ball, hurt teams with play-action throws and keep their quarterbacks out of dangerous situations.

It worked in the first two weeks. It hasn’t worked since then -- and it’s something that must change if the Redskins want to accomplish anything this season.

The recent problems don’t stem from one issue, which perhaps is the issue. Otherwise, the corrections would be easy. It’s not having your most dangerous receiver. It’s being down to tight ends acquired in August or later. It’s facing top defensive fronts. Add it up: the Redskins have averaged 3.50 yards per carry the last three weeks.

“The thing about the running game, everybody has to be in concert -- the linemen, the back side, the front side, the backs -- we all have to be in concert together,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.

In other words, the Redskins need some fine tuning.

Here’s what’s gone wrong, with all stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information, and some possible solutions (I’ll look at the running backs in a future post):

First downs: The real problem has occurred on first down and that was more than evident Sunday. Part of the problem stemmed from simply missing blocks; other times it was predictability -- linebackers at times cheated up before the snap. The Redskins ran the ball 12 times on their initial 15 first down plays. They gained a combined 22 yards.

It’s not as if every run stemmed from the same look: They used three tight end sets and three receiver alignments and they varied their backs -- running with Chris Thompson, who is more of a pass catcher. Their best success came in the third quarter when they were able to get Matt Jones and Thompson outside; Thompson was used in a situation he normally would not be, with two tight ends, but his speed mattered.

For the season, the Redskins have run the ball on first down 61 times and attempted 34 passes in the first three quarters of a game (in the fourth quarter, the Redskins have passed more thanks to game situations). You can be a run-based team but have better first-down balance. Look for more balance in the future; it can even come in the form of bubble screens and short routes to slot receiver Jamison Crowder.

The line: When you have two young players starting next to each other on the right side -- one of whom is a rookie and the other who started one game as a rookie last year -- there will be growing pains. It’s not as if the trouble is theirs alone, but both guard Brandon Scherff and tackle Morgan Moses have plenty to learn. Moses, for example, has struggled at times to reach defenders to open cutback lanes. Center Kory Lichtensteiger, the lightest lineman at 296 pounds, struggled against the Falcons --- he has faced a string of excellent interior linemen and will do so again Sunday. But they all had issues; left tackle Trent Williams failed on two first-down runs to seal the backside, preventing a cutback lane. One coach said Atlanta’s athleticism up front gave their blockers problems. Indeed, Washington averaged only 1.38 yards before contact, by far their worst showing of the season. They have faced excellent lines thus far and might have their biggest test Sunday at New York.

Tight ends: The Redskins lost two of their three primary tight ends early in training camp and their third, Jordan Reed, now is sidelined with a concussion. That means the Redskins are down to their fourth, fifth and sixth tight end options this season. Against the Rams, the tight ends blocked well; without them sealing their defenders on the backside, those long runs -- 35 yards by Alfred Morris; 39 by Matt Jones -- don’t happen. But Derek Carrier and especially Anthony McCoy did not have their best games last week.

Receiver DeSean Jackson: He’ll help on any down and perhaps he can provide more diversity on first. But don’t expect the Jets to change how they play just because Jackson’s in the lineup; they’ll play their corners tight regardless. Atlanta’s style was to play a lot of eight-man fronts, too. But with Jackson on the field, the threat of the pass always is real -- if you don’t honor it, he can beat you. The same can’t be said of his replacement, Ryan Grant. The flipside with Jackson? He’s not a good run blocker.

However, here’s a key stat from 2014: With Jackson on the field, the Redskins averaged 4.73 yards per run compared to 3.29 without him. On first down, with Jackson the Redskins averaged 4.37 yards per carry and 3.26 without him. He makes a difference. Defenses might play tight, but if they’re overly aggressive, the Redskins now have more chance to hurt them once he returns from his hamstring injury.

“Any time your best players are on the field, you have a great chance as a play caller, as a quarterback, to do some special things,” Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins said. “Getting DeSean back gives us that opportunity.”