Through three preseason games, the Washington Redskins' running attack has worked in ways that were possible only on a chalkboard last season. The big-play potential that coach Mike Shanahan's outside zone scheme repeatedly realized in Denver appears to have finally showed up in Washington.
Much of the focus this summer has been on the Redskins' quarterback competition, but the emergence of running back Tim Hightower probably is the most meaningful story line.
After acquiring him in a July 31 trade with Arizona for what now seems to be a bargain price - a late-round 2012 draft pick and defensive end Vonnie Holliday - Hightower appears to be a superb fit in the scheme. His vision and patience in diagnosing cutback lanes help explain his 6.8-yard average on 25 preseason carries.
The newfound potency of the ground game, however, goes beyond just him. Success running the ball, and big plays in particular, are the product of execution by the entire offense. Take Hightower's 37-yard touchdown run against Baltimore, for example.
"The back side of the formation really has to be in tune, staying with their blocks," Shanahan said. "[Defenders are] so fast in the National Football League, it's hard to get those long runs unless everybody is playing together."
The offensive line made Hightower's run possible, just as it did for his 58-yard scamper against Indianapolis the previous week.
The Redskins lined up with a tight end on each side of the line, so there were seven blockers up front. All seven executed their blocks, which provided Hightower a lane through which to cut back to the left and into the open field.
"A lot of those plays, if the front side is not there, we're counting on the back side being open as much as the front side," left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. "Everybody down the line knows that it could be their block on any play that springs him."
The play started by flowing to the right. Right tackle Jammal Brown squared his shoulders to Baltimore's Terrell Suggs, who was playing defensive end, and blocked off Suggs' path to Hightower. It helped that tight end Mike Sellers chipped Suggs before proceeding to block linebacker Jameel McClain.
Center Will Montgomery and right guard Chris Chester double-teamed three-time All-Pro lineman Haloti Ngata, pushing him to the right off the line of scrimmage.
The back-side action was even better. Lichtensteiger's cut block actually took out two Ravens linemen and put them on the ground. That opened up the cutback lane for Hightower.
Left tackle Trent Williams sealed the lane by running five yards past the line of scrimmage and mauling Ravens Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis.
"When you're a running back and you see your offensive linemen out running, that's a great feeling," Hightower said. "That's exactly what they do in practice. They finish their blocks."
Blocking up front sprang Hightower into the secondary, but there was no guarantee of a touchdown. Wide receiver Terrence Austin increased those odds with his block of Baltimore safety Tom Zbikowski.
Austin ran 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and shoved Zbikowski back with both hands. Zbikowski lost his balance long enough to have to adjust his angle chasing Hightower back to the left sideline.
"If you get a touchdown run in the National Football League or long runs of over 50 yards, the wide receivers have to be blocking," Shanahan said. "Just like on that play, Austin goes down for the free safety. He takes the corner out. Unless he's hustling on that play, its a 10- or a 12-yard gain."
With the men in front of him executing their assignments, Hightower took care of the rest. He started running right but quickly cut upfield and back to the left after Lichtensteiger's block leveled Baltimore's line.
Ravens cornerback Cary Williams ran with Austin into the secondary, so he wasn't in ideal position to stop Hightower. Hightower ran past Williams, who dove at his feet but grasped nothing but air.
Then it was a race between Hightower and Zbikowski, who tried to recover from Austin's block. Hightower's burst of speed was enough to reach the end zone first.
"It was a well-executed play," Hightower said. "I told the guys, 'I messed up the first two. I slipped twice. I told them to keep working hard for me; receivers keep blocking downfield. I'm not going to keep missing them, and I did just that.
"If we continue to build on that, I think we'll win a lot more games than we lose this year."
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