Charles Leno Jr. told reporters following the Washington Football Team’s 17-10 loss to the Denver Broncos how the offense needs an identity. While it’s a worry the unit is still having an identity crisis eight games into the 2021 NFL season, the solution is simple. Coordinator Scott Turner needs to build a run-heavy offense for the Washington Football Team.
Charles Leno: "The bye week came at a good time. When you get in those situations we've been in, it's still searching for an identity for our offense. We need to look at the tape and do some self-scouting and understand what we're good at and do those things. That will help…"
— John Keim (@john_keim) November 1, 2021
A Run-Heavy Offense Makes Most Sense for the Washington Football Team
You only need to take a cursory glance at the numbers to know Turner’s pass-happy spread stuff isn’t working. Just a little digging into the “Team Stats” category on NFL.com will tell you Washington’s offense has thrown 280 passes compared to 207 rushing attempts. The results of this imbalance have been meager at best.
The Football Team has completed 63.6 percent of the passes thrown. Those completions have yielded 6.9 yards per catch, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. This is about as far removed from the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ as a team can get.
Washington’s middling numbers through the air are translating into dire performances and results. During Week 7’s 24-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Turner’s offense conspired to waste a plethora of possessions:
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) October 25, 2021
Things were every bit as bad in Denver, where Taylor Heinicke led an offense that passed its way to a slow, anemic crawl:
#WashingtonFootball offense 26 points in last 10 quarters. Halftime adjustments coming
— thom loverro (@thomloverro) October 31, 2021
Even adding Heinicke’s third quarter touchdown pass to De Andre Carter, admittedly a thing of beauty, Washington’s offense is still on a run of 33 points in 12 quarters. Dismal stuff in any era.
Part of the problem is Washington still trying to be an expansive aerial attack without the necessary weapons. Injuries to tight end Logan Thomas and free-agent signings quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Curtis Samuel have robbed Turner of his primary playmakers.
Heinicke’s struggles in relief of Fitzpatrick have compounded the problem. So have a myriad of injuries along the offensive line. Leno Jr. is one of the few linemen still walking upright, while center Chase Roullier and guard Ereck Flowers joined the wounded list against the Broncos.
The irony is Turner’s offense doesn’t need to be a pass-first unit. Washington is actually pretty competent running the football, evidenced by a healthy average of 4.6 yards per carry. Turner has the resources to make that number grow, starting with the primary ball carriers on the roster.
Triple-Headed Backfield Monster
Washington’s ability to make hay on the ground comes from three talented running backs, Antonio Gibson, J.D. McKissic, and Jaret Patterson. The latter was the star of the preseason but remained in mothballs once the real action began. Things changed for Patterson in Week 8, when he gained 46 yards on 11 impressive rushes against the Broncos.
What I like about Patterson, is he always keeps his legs moving and has better vision than Gibson.
— Washington Wire (@Washington_Wire) October 31, 2021
Gibson’s still the main man, though, despite some issues with ball security this season. When he protects the football, Gibson has an explosive first step through the hole and finishes his runs with violence. McKissic, by contrast, is usually known for his receiving chops, but he adds quicks and shiftiness as a runner.
This is a deep and talented group Turner needs to use more often. He can start by getting more of his gifted backs on the field at the same time. Putting a pair of genuine RB1s in the formation forces a defense to play guess who’s going to carry the ball? It’s not a game many defensive signal-callers will win.
Things become tougher for opponents if the two backs offer an intriguing contrast in styles. Gibson’s ability to scoot between the tackles and Patterson’s once-cut-and-go running require different keys and post-snap actions to stop. Similarly, pairing Gibson’s hard-nosed style with the sweeping speed of McKissic would force a defense to defend more of the field.
Fortunately, there are several ways to put multiple backs into the offense. Those ways will appeal to a creative coordinator like Turner. He’d be smart to turn to the Wildcat for inspiration.
It’s no longer as in vogue as it was around a decade-and-a-bit ago, but the Wildcat still catches defenses cold when used selectively. The single-wing looks and direct snaps to runners are especially useful in the red zone. Just ask the Arizona Cardinals, who used the package brilliantly for a score against the Packers last week:
— NFL (@NFL) October 29, 2021
This set would be lethal for Washington, not least because Gibson and McKissic both have backgrounds as wide receivers. They would be legitimate pass-catching threats on option plays, or else able to split out before the snap and take a reverse from the other acting as the Wildcat QB.
It’s always good to have a few trick plays in the arsenal, but a running game works best when there’s simplicity and power. Washington can manufacture strength in the trenches even with all those injuries along the front.
One of the simplest ways to “run with some power,” as Bill Parcells would put it, is to play with a fullback. Sadly, Washington’s roster is sans a true blocking back. That needn’t be the end of the discussion, though, not when there’s a de facto fullback in waiting. His name is John Bates, a rookie tight end who is defined more as a blocker than a receiver. He’s 6’6″ and 259 pounds, so Bates will have no trouble absorbing linebackers and defensive backs in space.
Bates also needs to be more of a factor if Turner opts to continue without a blocking back. The alternative is to use more three-tight end sets. Ricky Seals-Jones and Bates would occupy two of those slots, but the third is a mystery. Sammis Reyes and Jace Sternberger are on the roster, although the latter is injured, but Turner could use Cam Sims as a makeshift tight end. Sims is a big-bodied wideout at 6’5″ and 220 pounds, so he’d be able to function as a viable part of double-team blocking on the edge.
What about how things can look when Washington gets some of those injured linemen back? Before the Denver game, head coach Ron Rivera said Brandon Scherff was “very, very close” to making a comeback from a knee injury, per Matthew Paras of The Washington Times.
This team needs All-Pro guard Scherff to make a run-heavy offense work. His return would allow Turner to incorporate a set made for the power football. It would mean taking a page from bitter NFC East rivals the Dallas Cowboys.
Dallas needed something to offset being without quarterback Dak Prescott for Sunday night’s road game against the Minnesota Vikings. Head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore came up with this:
Dallas jumbo inverted wishbone 😍😍😍 pic.twitter.com/AWzKyTTkbw
— Josh Cohen (@JCohen_NFL) November 1, 2021
Putting seven linemen on the field, but moving two of them created a full-house backfield with plenty of beef. The look screamed power, no matter if Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard lugged the rock. This is something Washington can use to create bigger running lanes for Gibson, McKissic or Patterson. No linebacker is going to relish meeting a 300-plus pound guard in the hole.
Adding an extra body or two along the line is always a good idea for a run-heavy offense. It sells run to a defense while creating potentially greater rewards off of play action. No team is taking more advantage of the decoy element afforded by playing a sixth O-lineman than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
W/ 12-XT personnel, @Buccaneers OC Byron Leftwich is able to mislead defenses, run play-action, and scheme throws for @TomBrady. Here, @MattBowen41 explains how this concept was used against the @Eagles as they prepare for #DaBears this weekend.#GoBucs |#NFL | @GregCosell pic.twitter.com/O3xk4t1axY
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 22, 2021
Now picture this same play being run by Washington. Imagine Terry McLaurin on the outside, Adam Humphries motioning into the slot and either Gibson or McKissic faking the handoff and releasing into space. Okay, so Heinicke’s no Tom Brady, but this is a quarterback-friendly concept that dictates the best throw.
There are many ways Washington can play power football, but some subterfuge would also make this running game potent.
DeAndre Carter as Curtis Samuel
Every run-first offense needs a true X-factor, a player capable of breaking up the predictability of regular handoffs in pursuit of three yards a cloud of dust. Samuel was supposed to play this role as a WR/RB whom Turner and Rivers deployed in a variety of ways for the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, injuries have wrecked those plans:
Rivera on Curtis Samuel: hoping they can have him 'down the stretch.' Getting him more work, more conditioning; have 9 games after the bye and hoping he can be ready for that stretch. Played more than they wanted vs. Atl b/c of personnel issues; Rivera said that set him back
— John Keim (@john_keim) October 29, 2021
This offense has been almost wrinkle-free without Samuel (not to mention Thomas). It means there should be a bigger role for Carter. He’s ready to be the ball-carrying wideout extraordinaire Turner’s playbook is missing.
Carter’s got a returner’s elusiveness and breakaway speed. Putting him in the backfield would increase the number of jet sweeps and pop passes in the scheme. If you can’t make big gains via conventional throw-and-catch methods, it’s better to manufacture a few with sleight of hand.
Turner and Rivera have a bye week to reinvent this offense from the ground up. It’s the best way to get more from the talent at their disposal and cover injuries. Going run heavy will also shorten games, limit the opposition’s drives and protect an underperforming defense.
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