Redskins To Develop Running Back Passing Game
Last week Son of Washington gave you a preview of the running backs heading to training camp and who is likely to claim a 2014 roster spot. This week, we’re going to talk about a popular topic around Redskins Park and with fans: developing and improving upon the running back passing game.
Having a running back passing game has been one of Jay Gruden’s top priorities since he’s became the Redskins head coach. So much so that Gruden and the front office drafted Lache Seastrunk in the 6th round of this year’s draft with the goal of finding and developing a pass catching threat out of the backfield.
I know what you’re thinking “Why is this a big deal? Don’t the Redskins have a ton of passing options already in DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed?“. They do, but that’s not the point. After watching a few games of the Cincinnati Bengals from last year, I have noticed that Jay Gruden incorporates the running back passing game into his offense much more than what you’d see with the Mike and Kyle Shanahan scheme. While you will see a similar philosophy in how they run the ball and in some designed passing plays, it’s how they use the running back in passing situations is where their philosophies start to differ.
To back this theory up just look at the reception/yards stats from the Bengals running backs from last year:
Giovani Bernard: 56 receptions, 514 yards, 3 TDs
Benjarvis Green-Ellis: 4 receptions, 22 yards
and compare it to the 2013 Redskins:
Roy Helu: 31 receptions, 251 yards
Alfred Morris: 9 receptions, 78 yards
Darrel Young: 4 receptions, 71 yards, 1 TD
All three running backs combined didn’t match Bernard’s performance last season. Matter of fact, even in his best season, Roy Helu didn’t not match Bernard’s reception performance when he had 49 catches for 379 yards and 1 TD in 2011 (this number is highly inflated thanks to John Beck and his inability to pass the ball down field).
So What’s The Difference (In Scheme)?
Mike Shanahan won two Super Bowls with the zone stretch run. It’s what you’ve seen being run in Washington since 2010. If the zone stretch is successful, you can do things off of it like play action, bootlegs, play action bootlegs and even some of the zone read option plays that we saw in 2012 and 2013. The Shanahans love to play action bootleg off of the zone stretch and in many cases this leaves the running back to block, usually sealing off the quarterback’s blind side. When this happens, it takes the running back out of the play because he is on the other side of the field and not a good target for a pass.
Jay Gruden on the other hand does something different. He still likes to use zone blocking and zone stretch plays to establish the run game, but he doesn’t use bootlegs as much if at all compared to the Shanahans. When he calls a play action, the running back can either stay in to block or can be sent to various spots on the field in an attempt to get open either as a target or at worse a check down (a last resort for the quarterback to go to if his other targets aren’t open).
For the Shanahans using bootlegs is all about extending the play. It gives the quarterback options to reach a spot and hopefully have a receiver wind his way through a defense. If nobody is open, then the quarterback still may have a chance to make some positive yardage by running the ball. For Jay Gruden it’s all about quick release and getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. If Robert Griffin III holds onto the ball less on each snap, he’s less likely to get hit or sacked. This also frustrates a defense because if the quarterback can get rid of the ball early, there’s less pressure being generated which means less chances that a interception will occur. We see this similar concept used frequently with the likes of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. So, in this case Gruden wants to have as many options for RGIII as possible so he doesn’t have to run as frequently to avoid the rush.
Let’s Go To The Tape
Here’s a few examples I pulled of the running back passing game used by the Bengals last year to show a few play the Redskins may use in 2014.
On this play it looks like Dalton is feeling the Ravens pass rush and goes to Bernard in the flat for a small (7 yards) but decent gain.
Quick Pass 2 (different angle)
Here is the same play as above but from a different angle. Note that all of the receivers are getting press coverage from a DB. Dalton hits Bernard in the flat as he’s the only receiver not getting pressed at the time and is open.
Play action creates cushion for running back passing game
I found this play interesting and used a few times in the multiple games I studied. Initially, the Bengals had two RBs in the backfield in an I formation. What you are seeing here is that the FB went into motion and lined up next to the left tackle. Thus, the Bengals now appear to be in a 2 TE formation. Meanwhile, the Bears are in their base 4-3 package and will drop into zone coverage when the ball is snapped.
Andy Dalton has faked the hand off to Bernard (yellow ring) who now appears to be helping with the pass blocking (really a fake). Meanwhile the Bears linebackers (white rings) have dropped into zone coverage.
A huge cushion has opened up between the line of scrimmage and where the linebackers are set in their zone. The Bengals pounce on this and dumps the ball off to Bernard, who gets eight yards before he is stopped. If not for all three linebackers attacking Bernard, there is a chance he might be able to break away for a big gain in the open field.
How Does The Running Back Passing Game Help The Redskins?
It does in a manner of ways. First, it provides RGIII another weapon in his arsenal. While, Alfred Morris has had some issues with pass catching and we don’t really know about Chris Thompson or Lache Seastrunk’s skills in this area, Roy Helu and Darrel Young have shown to do well when given the opportunity. Matter of fact, this may be a way to use Young more often in the current scheme as both a pass catcher and a dominating blocker. We’ve mentioned how Young could be used more and that him running the old Gruden “Spider 2, Y Banana” would be fun to see. By using play action or designing plays to hit the RBs in stride can help do this.
Second, it protects the quarterback. Sometimes you need to keep the RB in to protect the QB from a blitzing LB or DB, but sometimes it’s better to have a RB in the flat who can have the ball dumped off to him instead of trying to wait for a WR/TE to get open. If RGIII has more options, then there’s less chance that he’ll be scrambling to make yards or keep plays alive. It’s worth noting that his knee injury and concussion in 2012 were caused when he scrambled out of the pocket on pass attempts.
Third, is frustrating opposing defenses. If the Eagles know that the Redskins are not going to throw the ball underneath to their running backs, then why worry about it? By having another active part of the passing game available, the Redskins just made their opponents have to work harder. The Redskins want opposing teams to have to read and react to what’s happening. Eventually teams will start to worry about the underneath and Jackson or Garcon will burn coverage deep for a big play. Also, by having quick passes available, the defense will struggle to get to the quarterback with just four and may try to send more which can be used to the Redskins advantage in attacking deep or using screens.
The Redskins still believe that using the zone stretch and zone blocking is the way to go for the future of the franchise. This makes sense based on the type of offensive line the team has and the multiple years of success Alfred Morris has had in this scheme. However, the team needed to become more creative in using their running backs more than just in the run game. Jay Gruden has some innovative ideas that may help develop the running back passing game in DC. If this works, not only could the Redskins be a threat deep but also in short and intermediate situations while protecting the quarterback in the process.
The running back passing game is something to keep an eye on during training camp and in the preseason games. It could be a crucial element to the offense in 2014.