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Need to Know: What should we expect from the Redskins' running game this year?

Need to Know: What should we expect from the Redskins' running game this year?

Here is what you need to know on this Monday, July 20, 10 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.

Question of the day

A few days a week I’ll give an in-depth answer to a question submitted by a fan on my Twitter feed, via the Real Redskins Facebook page, or in the comments section here. On Twitter address the questions to me at @Rich_TandlerCSN with the #NTK hashtag. There will be a comment thread set up on the Facebook page and if you’re asking your question here, put “for NTK” at the start of the comment.

I’ll also take your Need to Know questions via email. Hit me up rich.tandler+csn@gmail.com with “NTK” in the subject line. Just keep them relatively brief, please. 

Today’s question comes from Twitter:

I’ve spent a lot of time this offseason looking at various aspects of the running game but Raj’s question here gives me a good opportunity to step back and look at the big picture, how I expect the various parts to fit together. So here we go:

After saying shortly before the start of the 2014 seasons that running the ball was what the Redskins did best, Jay Gruden didn’t call a whole lot of runs. The Redskins were 19th in the NFL in rushing attempts with 401. To put that in context, the Seahawks led the league 525 rushing attempts, ahead of the Cowboys (508) and Jets (507).

I think that Gruden perhaps intended to call more than 25 runs per game but between his natural inclination to pass first and a defense that was giving up points at a pace of almost a touchdown per quarter (27.4 points/game), it just didn’t happen. The defense should be improved and the presence of Bill Callahan on the sideline will nudge Gruden towards keeping the ball on the ground a bit more. If they add four or five runs per game that will get them up in the area of 450-475 rushing attempts.

Who will carry the ball? Gruden has assured us on multiple occasions that Alfred Morris is still the workhorse running back so until I see something different I’ll believe him. Morris carried 265 times last year so let’s say stays right around in that area. Rookie Matt Jones should get the 40 carries that the departed Roy Helu had last year and then some, perhaps 100 total.

The wild card is quarterback rushing attempts. We’re not going to see a return to 2012 when Robert Griffin III ran the ball 120 times. But if Griffin starts at least a dozen games or so he should get more than the 61 rushing attempts the three quarterbacks combined for in 2014. I’d say something around the 86 he had in 13 games in 2013.

So what will it add up to? Last year they averaged 4.2 yards per rushing attempt, 15th in the NFL. The Redskins averaged 105.7 yards per game, 19th in the league. How much better can they be? Adding a half a yard to their average per rush is a fairly ambitious goal but between the addition of Callahan, a new right side of the line, and more power running, it’s possible. We’ll use 4.7 yards per carry to figure things here while recognizing that 4.5 would represent a solid improvement.

Some quick math tells us that if the Redskins run the ball 475 times and average 4.7 yards a pop over 16 games they will average 140 yards on the ground per game. Last year that would have been fourth in the NFL, behind Seattle (173 per game), Dallas (147), and the Jets (142).

How about if they run 450 times and average 4.5? That would still represent a good improvement up to 126 yards per game, which would have been eighth in the NFL in 2014.

Somewhere between 125 and 140 yards per game is the upside prediction and I think their performance will trend that way. But some things must go right—the defense has to be improved and not just different to keep the team in running situations, Griffin or whoever the quarterback is needs to play well enough to keep teams from stacking the box, and the right side of the line needs to gel in a hurry both in run blocking and in pass protection. Things not going according to the preseason plan has been the norm for this franchise. We will see how it all shakes out but it does seem that the intention is to run more often and run better.

Timeline

—It’s been 204 days since the Redskins played a game. It will be 55 days until they play the Dolphins at FedEx Field.

Days until: Redskins training camp starts 10; Preseason opener @ Browns 24; final cuts 47

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Kirk Cousins breaks down the terribleness of FedEx Field grass

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Kirk Cousins breaks down the terribleness of FedEx Field grass

For years, the Redskins struggle with their home field as the fall turns to winter. It's been happening so long it's become an expected passing of the seasons, like the transition from Halloween jack-o-lanterns to Christmas lights dotting people's front yards. 

Well, on Thanksgiving night, the turf at FedEx Field again showed how bad it can be. On a second half interception returned for a New York Giants touchdown, replay showed that Kirk Cousins' foot got stuck on the dirt, and it played a role in his sailing a ball to the sideline. The bad turf was not the only reason for the interception, but it was definitely a reason. 

Beyond the pick, the field was just ugly. Twitter blew up making fun of the Redskins home grass, and the national broadcast showed just how unsightly the long brown patch between the hash marks looked. 

On Friday, the normally diplomatic Cousins opened up about the grass.

"It probably doesn't look like a professional NFL field should," the quarterback said on 106.7 the Fan (full audio here). "If you think the field is rough now on Thanksgiving, we've got two more home games in mid-to-late December. That's probably going to be a bigger challenge."

Asked about the field's impact on the interception on Thursday night, Cousins ignored it. But plenty of other players have suggested the field is a known problem in the second half, and something they just must deal with. 

"I don't know why it is that way or what causes it," Cousins said. "I've kind of learned to accept it and understand it's part of the deal. Playing here on the field has never been that great in the second half of the season for whatever the reason."

[h/t @BenStandig for the Cousins quotes]

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When Samaje Perine got going, so did the Redskins' offense

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Bob Youngentob for NBC Sports Washington

When Samaje Perine got going, so did the Redskins' offense

At halftime of the Redskins’ Thanksgiving night game against the Giants, Samaje Perine had three yards rushing and his team had three points. Washington had racked up all of 113 yards.

Coincidence? Not entirely. Although the Redskins are primarily a passing team they need to run the ball to pass effectively.

“We had to get the running game going,” said Jay Gruden after the game.

In the second half, Perine and the offense did get it going. Perine ran for 97 yards and Redskins put up 210 yards and 17 points. It’s safe to say that it wasn’t a coincidence.

The Redskins didn’t make any halftime adjustments to get the ground game in gear.

“We just had to stay the course,” said Perine. “We knew they were going to come out fired up, they just came off a big win. We just had to stay the course and then things started going our way.”

MORE REDSKINS: MUST-SEE PHOTOS OF THE WIN

Perine was more steady than spectacular. His longest run was 16 yards. He came out of the locker room and ran for six and 10 yards on his first two carries. Later in the third quarter the Redskins were backed up at their own 10. Perine ran four straight plays for 39 yards and the Redskins were near midfield.

Although they didn’t score on that drive they did change field position. That was part of the Redskins’ strategy playing with an injury-depleted offense.

“If you had to punt in a game like this and play field position, it’s not the end of the world because our defense was playing so good,” said Gruden.

Not only did the running game flip the field, it flipped the time of possession. In the first half, the Giants had the ball for 17:40 compared to 12:20 for the Redskins.

“We had to get on the field and control some of the clock,” said tackle Morgan Moses. “We had to give our defense a rest. Samaje put his foot in the ground and got extra yards when needed and we were able to move the chains.”

Moses wasn’t the only one enjoying seeing Perine pile up some yards.

“As a defensive player, you want to see that,” said safety D.J. Swearinger. “We say, keep running it. Keep running him. Let him keep getting those carries, put a dent in the defense. It was a good sight to see.”

RELATED: FIVE KEY MOMENTS IN RESKINS VS GIANTS

Swearinger got to watch a lot of Perine. The Redskins piled up 22:17 in possession in the second half, while Swearinger and his defensive mates had to defend for just 7:43.

Last night was the second time in four days that Perine has rushed for 100 yards or more; he had 117 in New Orleans on Sunday. No Redskin has rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games since Alfred Morris did it in November of 2013.

He will have a chance to extend that streak to three on Thursday against the Cowboys, who are ranked 17th in rushing defense. That would put him in some elite company in Redskins history, including Larry Brown (twice) and Stephen Davis.  A steak of three straight 100-yard games was last done by Morris in 2012.

It may be a little early to look forward, but the Redskins record is five straight 100-yard games, held by Clinton Portis (twice) and Ladell Betts.  

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.