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Redskins' Morris was frequently stopped before he could get started in 2014

Redskins' Morris was frequently stopped before he could get started in 2014

You don’t have to look very deeply into Alfred Morris’ numbers to realize that 2014 wasn’t a banner year for him. He averaged just 67 yards per game, quite a decline from the 101 yards per game he gained as a rookie in 2012. Morris did have 70 fewer carries in 2014 than he did in 2012 but he also averaged 4.1 yards per carry last year compared to 4.8 as a rookie.

There has been plenty of talk that Morris needs to be more productive this coming season, which also happens to be the final year of his contract. The team spent a third-round draft pick on running back Matt Jones and it appears that he will be give plenty of opportunity to make his case to be the No. 1 back in 2016.

But Morris can’t do anything without help and I found one article that indicates that he didn’t get nearly enough of it. Earlier this month Pro Football Focus ran a post looking at which running backs were hit in the backfield the most often in 2014. And right there near the top of the list was Alfred Morris.

According to the analysis, Morris took a handoff and was contacted before he reached the line of scrimmage an astounding 70 times, 26.4 percent of his rushing attempts. That was sixth in the league on a percentage basis. Although they don’t rank the raw numbers, it’s hard to imagine many backs getting hit in the backfield more than 70 times.

This feeds into the notion that the Redskins’ offensive line was a mess last year and that anyone from Jim Brown to Adrian Peterson would have struggled to put up impressive numbers behind that group.

And there is no question that the line needed to get better. That is why the Redskins paid premium dollars to bring in Bill Callahan, one of the best O-line coaches in the business. That is why they spent the No. 5 overall pick on right tackle Brandon Scherff and drafted two other linemen in the later rounds. The organization also decided to move on from right guard Chris Chester and promote Spencer Long to the starting spot there.

But getting hit in the backfield on a running play isn’t always the fault of the five offensive linemen. Sometimes tight ends, receivers, and the fullback don’t execute their assignments. The defense could load the box at times and have more defenders than the offense has available blocker. The loaded box frequently happens when the quarterback is struggling; the Redskins had a trio of QB’s who went through extended rough patches.

And sometimes the blame goes on the runner. Morris did say last year that he was not always hitting the right spots all the time. If the runner is going to one place and the offensive line thinks he’s supposed to be in a different place the play will frequently break down.

It should be noted that runners getting hit in the backfield is a common occurrence in the NFL. The running back who got hit early the least was Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs and he got hit 13.2 percent of the time. The PFF article doesn’t give complete data so it’s impossible to say with accuracy what the NFL average is for backfield hits. But eyeballing the top 10 and the bottom 10 I’d say that 20 percent is a reasonable estimate. If that’s the case and the Redskins were an average team in this regard then Morris would have been hit early on 53 of his 265 carries.

Like most areas of concern with this year, fixing just one aspect of the problem isn’t going to get done. For Morris to get a better chance at gaining positive yardage several areas need to improve, including the runner himself.

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Accentuating the negative leads to positive results for Chris Thompson

Accentuating the negative leads to positive results for Chris Thompson

Some NFL players ooze confidence. They thrive on emphasizing what they do well and not speaking about weaknesses. In a game as tough and physical as pro football, some players need to feel bulletproof to survive.

Chris Thompson is not like that. He was one of the stars in the Redskins’ 27-20 win over the Rams on Sunday. He rushed three times for 77 yards and two touchdowns and caught three passes for 29 yards. And while he enjoyed the win, he did not revel in his performance as he made a glaring mistake.

RELATED: JAY GRUDEN NOT INCREASING THOMPSON'S WORKLOAD

In the third quarter, quarterback Kirk Cousins threw him a perfect pass over the middle. The speedy Thompson had nothing but green grass and white stripes in front of him. But he dropped the pass, turning what likely would have been a 62-yard touchdown into an incompletion.

That play stuck with him despite his touchdown runs of 61 and seven yards.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “On the plane ride, getting dressed after the game, this morning watching film, when I was outside at practice, I was thinking about that one play. My first thing I wanted to do when I got out there in individuals with the quarterbacks was to run that route again and catch the ball.”

FANTASY: TO START CHRIS THOMPSON OR NOT?

Instead of reliving his glory, he went to work to correct one mistake.

This is not a lone instance of Thompson focusing on negative plays that he made. He said that mistakes stick in his mind more than good plays. During a few minutes talking to reporters on Wednesday, he recalled going the wrong way on a choice route against the Dolphins in 2015, costing a possible touchdown, making a similar mistake against the Browns last year, and errors that led to sacks of Cousins last year and of Robert Griffin III a few years ago.

“All of those things that I look back at that I did wrong, it helped me become a better player this year,” said Thompson. “I’ve been able to go back and look at that and see what went wrong and fix it now. As of late as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing and more confident in my abilities I’m able to play better.”

Whatever Thompson is doing to become a better player is working. He signed a two-year contract extension earlier this month. Jay Gruden sings his praises whenever he’s asked about him. His teammates almost universally admire and respect him. In his fifth NFL season, many analysts around the league are starting to recognize him as a main cog in the Redskins’ offense.

It is unlikely that he will change his approach.

“I had to mess up a lot in order to get where I am now,” he said. Thompson will continue to perfect his game by putting his imperfect moments under the microscope. 

MORE REDSKINS: FIVE UNDER PRESSURE VS. RAIDERS

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Redskins Playbook: Cousins, Gruden remain quite confident in offense. Maybe they're right

Redskins Playbook: Cousins, Gruden remain quite confident in offense. Maybe they're right

One of the best offenses in 2016, the Redskins early returns so far in 2017 rank somewhere between underwhelming and underachieving. That does not mean good games aren't coming in the future, however, at least according to head coach Jay Gruden and quarterback Kirk Cousins. 

"I would like to think that as the year goes on the offense gets better and better," Cousins said Wednesday. "Hopefully we take those steps going forward and we just hit our stride and play much better than we have the first two weeks."

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In the first two games of the season, a loss at home to the Eagles in Week 1 and a win in Los Angeles over the Rams, Cousins hasn't played particularly well. Against Philadelphia, he played poorly, accounting for three turnovers and completing just 57 percent of his passes. In LA, he showed progress. No turnovers and his completion percentage jumped up nearly 10 points. 

More importantly, Cousins shined on the final drive of the game, going 3 for 3 and throwing the game-winning touchdown. It was that drive, and a number of near misses in both games, that has Gruden optimistic. 

The coach called the Redskins passing game "very, very close" to hitting on all cylinders.

"There is a lot we can improve on in the passing game, from Kirk to the routes to the protection. It’s a work in progress, but we will get there," Gruden said Monday. "We have total faith that we will get it done and his numbers will get better."

Considered in a certain way, he's right. 

In Week 1, the Redskins offensive line struggled and Cousins was sacked four times. The run game got nothing going, generating just 64 yards on the ground. Cousins was able to throw for 240 yards, and despite all the turnovers, the offense still had a chance to steal a win late in the fourth quarter. 

In Week 2, the Redskins line blocked better and the run game produced at a high level. Cousins' yardage total was quite low, only 179 yards, but a big gainer got dropped and a few other opportunities were missed. 

Cousins supporters will scream about passes being dropped in Weeks 1 and 2. Cousins detractors will scream about passes missed in Weeks 1 and 2.

READ MORE: KIRK COUSINS' HITS AND MISSES FROM WEEK 2

The truth is likely in the middle. There is a solid baseline of production from Cousins from the last two seasons, and clearly Gruden expects that to come. Perhaps Week 3 against Oakland will be the opportunity. 

"We’re just going to keep sticking with the plan, getting these guys open the best way we can and hopefully we give Kirk the protection and he sees the throws and makes the throws," Gruden said. "But we’re right there, really. I like the group that we have."

The 2016 Redskins finished third in the league in total yards gained. Obviously the team lost a ton of production with the exits of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon. Don't discount that, or the departure of former offensive coordinator Sean McVay. 

Despite all that, Cousins still has weapons. And talent. He knows he can be better, and knows he needs to be better.

"We have still done some really good things the first two weeks and have moved the ball, but I think there is more in the tank there that we have got to bring out,” Cousins said. 

To beat the Raiders, the Redskins will need to bring everything out of the tank. That likely means a 300-yard passing game from Cousins along with multiple touchdowns. 

The quarterback and the coach think the offense is ready, and close to a breakout game. Maybe they're right. 

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