ASHBURN, Va. -- They changed talent, tweaked the scheme, lured one of the most successful line coaches and added another big back. The Washington Redskins let it be known this offseason that they wanted to run the ball. Or, rather, needed to run the ball if they wanted to be successful.
Through two games, they’re on a good path to fulfilling that desire. The Redskins lead the NFL in rushing with 343 yards and are fifth at 4.64 yards per carry.
“We’ve added more downhill run plays,” Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said. “That may fit the backs we have a little more. Obviously those guys can get on the edge and have success, but any time you can get Matt Jones, a 230-pound back, or Alfred Morris, 230 pounds, going downhill it’s always going to present a challenge.”
Both Morris and Jones, a combination of power and more power, already have 100-yard games.
There’s a long way to go and the Redskins (1-1) know this; defenses will adjust to stop their run game. How they respond will determine their success, starting Thursday at the New York Giants.
But here are four reasons besides the backs why the Redskins are off to a good start running the ball this season:
Offensive line: With a change in schemes over the last two seasons, the Redskins knew they needed to get bigger and stronger on the right side of the line. They drafted two players in 2014 to eventually take over at guard and tackle: Spencer Long and Morgan Moses. Then they drafted Brandon Scherff fifth overall this past spring, now starting him at guard with Moses at tackle.
Both Scherff and Moses can play with more power. It allows for more variety, and the blocking, thus far, has been much better. They’ve also held up in protection, which enables the offense to stay in positive down-and-distance situations.
Left guard Shawn Lauvao has improved as a run blocker and even showed he could pull on some outside runs Sunday.
“He’s showing his athleticism,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of Lauvao. “That’s probably one of the knocks on him was his athleticism.
“He and Trent on the same side are two big powerful men. Then you go on the right side, Morgan and Brandon, they’re powerful in their own right. That offensive line’s anchored. Overall, that offensive group is doing an excellent job.”
Tight ends: Last season, any run-blocking issues were far from just the fault of the offensive line. The Redskins knew the tight end blocking needed to be better, too. Sunday, the Redskins used a three-tight-end set 15 times. The Redskins averaged 5.58 yards on 12 carries out of that look.
When Jones gained nine yards on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter, he ran left to the three-tight-end side. All three tight ends -- Jordan Reed, Derek Carrier and Anthony McCoy -- had sealed their men; Jones wasn’t touched for seven yards. He was untouched on his 39-yard touchdown run as well, helped by a block from Reed (and center Kory Lichtensteiger).
The Redskins can’t use this look every game, and it was done as much to regulate what St. Louis did defensively, preventing the Rams from digging deep into their playbook. So don’t expect this to be a weekly staple.
When tight ends block well -- Reed had one of his best games blocking this past week -- more holes open. And here is the result: The Redskins are fourth in the NFL in yards gained before contact (3.36). Last season they finished 12th at 2.69 yards. (In 2012, first at 3.69.)
Jones leads all NFL running backs through two games with an average of 4.28 yards before contact. Just one more example: On Morris’ 35-yard run Sunday, all three tight ends sealed the cutback lane with blocks. It matters.
Line coach Bill Callahan: In the offseason, many said Callahan might be the Redskins' best offseason pickup, especially on the coaching staff. It’s not as if the Redskins’ linemen felt the previous coach, Chris Foerster, didn’t help them. But Foerster’s background was more in the outside zone, while Callahan has run more of a mixture throughout his career (though Dallas last season used a lot of zone with Callahan as the line coach). He’s in charge of designing the Redskins’ run game.
Every day after practice, Callahan keeps the linemen on the field for more work with blocking sleds or other drills. He’s a classic grinder but hammers home the details. During meetings, he’ll sometimes quiz linemen about something they discussed a week or two earlier.
“He works us extremely hard,” Williams said. “Guys are buying in and it’s paying off.”
Commitment: It’s not just how often the Redskins are running the ball (74 times to 58 passes), but when. Last season, they averaged two runs per game when facing second-and-10 or longer; so far this season it’s 3.5 (tied for first in the NFL).
Does it matter? Jones’ 39-yard touchdown run vs. St. Louis occurred off a second-and-11 with defensive tackle Aaron Donald playing pass first and going at the quarterback. Had he expected a run, it would have been a 2-yard loss. And, of course, there was Jones’ previously mentioned 9-yard run on third-and-8.
“It does open up a lot of things for us,” Gruden said. “It’ll continue to open up things if we can stick to it. Every defense will give us different problems. It’s never going to be easy, but we have to stick to it. Obviously it runs clock, our linemen love it and it takes a little bit of pressure off the quarterback, which is very, very important. It’s been a good recipe for us so far.”
As Williams said, “When you’re having success, you stick with it.”