Rookie running back Roy Helu has galvanized the Washington Redskins’ running attack over the past three games. He has rushed for at least 100 yards in each since coach Mike Shanahan appointed him the team’s featured back.
That success has carried over to the passing game, too. Opponents are respecting the threat Helu poses, and that has unlocked Washington’s play-action passes.
“We’ve talked about that from Day 1 - through preseason and our first four regular-season games - when the running game is going, the play-action game always improves,” Shanahan said. “It better improve, because that’s where your big plays usually come. We’ve come up with a few more big plays in play-action and a little bit more consistency. Hopefully, we can continue to do that.”
Since Helu became the full-time starter against Seattle on Nov. 27, the Redskins have posted their two best yards-per-pass averages of the season.
Quarterback Rex Grossman averaged 8.5 yards per attempt against Seattle and 8.4 against New England last Sunday. The previous high was 6.8.
Against Seattle, the Redskins effectively ran play-action on quarterback keepers to misdirect the linebackers and safeties. There was less of that against New England, but fake handoffs still were effective in drawing the linebackers forward and opening up space for receivers in the secondary.
On Jabar Gaffney’s 9-yard touchdown, for example, a fake handoff fooled a safety on Gaffney’s side of the field. That left Gaffney alone against cornerback Devin McCourty, who he easily ran away from in the end zone.
Grossman has noticed a difference between how defenses are reacting to play fakes in the past three weeks compared to earlier this season.
“Scheme-wise, when teams are really relying on their linebackers to be aggressive and have safeties come down and help, those type of play-actions work a lot better,” he said. “Obviously, when you’re running the football, I don’t care what type of scheme you have, it’s going to make the linebackers come up even more and safeties and all types of things so you can get the ball over their heads into the second level. It’s a lot easier.”
Giants’ ground game down
The New York Giants, this Sunday’s opponent, rank last in the NFL in rushing yards and yards per carry.
“Really?” linebacker London Fletcher said. “I didn’t even realize that. You think about the Giants, obviously you typically think about them being a run-first football team.”
The Giants average only 85.8 rushing yards per game and 3.32 yards per carry. It’s easy to understand why Fletcher was surprised. New York has ranked in the top seven in the NFL in yards per carry in six of coach Tom Coughlin’s seven seasons.
One reason is that leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw missed four games with a broken foot, and running back Brandon Jacobs sat out two other games with a knee injury.
Their rushing attack has improved, however, since Bradshaw came back two games ago. The Giants have rushed for at least 100 yards in each game.