ASHBURN — Even eight months later, Wendell Smallwood still remembers how sore his body was the last time he faced the Chicago Bears. It was the NFC wildcard game and the former Eagles running back ached after every hit.
Smallwood mustered just 20 yards on eight carries. A swarm of defenders attacked him on each carry. The Eagles won the game, but the damage was done.
“That was one of the sorest games I’ve had since I’ve been playing,” the now Redskins running back said.
After two straight games of finishing with less than 50 rushing yards, the Redskins are determined to get their running game back on track. But to fix it, they’ll have to find success on “Monday Night Football.” against the Bears — an elite defense that gave up the fewest rushing yards last season.
In 2019, Chicago’s run defense remains just as stout. Opponents have only managed three yards per carry and are averaging just over 68 rushing yards per game.
Like the defense, the Redskins’ running game hasn’t lived up to expectations. Washington’s main back, Derrius Guice, is out at least eight weeks with a torn meniscus and backup Adrian Peterson didn’t have the same impact on Sunday as he did last year when the 34-year-old surprisingly stepped in to become the team’s offensive MVP.
Against the Cowboys, Peterson had only 25 yards on 10 carries.
“The running game, we’re not getting adequate enough movement, probably, with our interior people up to the next level from time to time,” coach Jay Gruden said. “It could be a point of attack, not getting movement from the point of attack. We’re making the back just kinda stop his feet and cut it right up the gut real quick. There’s a combination of things we can do better.”
Gruden wants his teams to dominate the trenches, which hasn’t happened in the first two weeks. The Redskins have missed blocks and haven’t consistently created holes big enough for the running backs to work with. When they have, the explosiveness hasn’t been there. Washington’s longest run of the season resulted in only a 10-yard gain.
This wasn’t the case last year. With Peterson, the Redskins averaged 110.9 rushing yards per game — 17th league-wide. Washington averaged 4.3 yards per carry and had 23 runs that resulted in a gain greater than 15 yards.
Though the Redskins offense ranked as one of the league’s worst, they formed an identity behind a hard-nosed rushing attack.
Many expected the same approach in 2019, though Washington ranks just 28 in rush play percentage at 26.55%. A lot of that has been situational as the Redskins have fallen behind in games and abandoned the run completely.
Washington’s success in the passing game has been the biggest surprise of the season. Quarterback Case Keenum has found a chemistry with his young receivers and Washington has the fifth-most efficient passing attack, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings.
But an effective running game can help open up the offense even further, Keenum said. The 31-year-old said it can take pressure off the Redskins’ defense by extending drives, brings tighter coverage from opposing defenses and opens up play-action opportunities.
This season, Washington is averaging just 2.5 yards per attempt.
“We need to do better,” Keenum said.
Under Gruden, the Redskins incorporate a variety of different concepts in the run game rather than rely on just one scheme, like Mike Shanahan did with his zone-blocking scheme. Skeptics have criticized the coach for that approach, rather than trying to tailor to his players’ strengths.
The topic re-emerged Sunday when Fox’s Pam Oliver reported Gruden wasn’t a “fan of” Peterson being a north-south runner. Former Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall tweeted: “Hey Jay Gruden, AP’s running style is better than your coaching style. #respectthegame”
Gruden, though, dismissed that report, telling NBC Sports Washington “you want north-south runners.” And on Friday, addressing a similar question about Washington’s approach, offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell said if the Redskins could do the same four or five plays until somebody stopped them, they would.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles also called a number of different runs, Smallwood said. The running back added it kept opposing defenses constantly off guard.
Smallwood said if the Redskins start to have success with one type of run, it will unlock the others.
“I think it will eventually happen,” Smallwood said. “It’s early in the year. We’ve got plenty of football left. We definitely can get it going.”
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