- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It was the first week of Washington Redskins training camp when Alfred Morris entertained the question. Darrel Young was hurt, and the unassuming sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic was asked if he had been asked by the coaching staff to fill in at fullback.

No, he hadn’t. Even with Tim Hightower, Evan Royster and Roy Helu Jr. on the roster, Morris was a runner, not just a blocker. Within weeks he was the starting running back, and after 14 games Morris has franchise rookie records of 1,322 yards and nine touchdowns.

Given Morris‘ surprising season, it looks like the Redskins handed the ball to the right guy. But his success is just the latest among a long line of running backs coached by Mike Shanahan from anonymity to greatness, including the likes of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis with the Denver Broncos.

“His blocking scheme is perfect and ideally suited to run the ball effectively,” ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “It doesn’t matter who the running back is. The running backs historically in Shanahan’s offense, be it in Denver or in Washington, have been outstanding. That’s not to take away from the ability of these guys. They obviously have ability. But all these guys that weren’t highly regarded are putting up numbers.”

Morris is the seventh running back to have a 1,000-plus-yard season under Shanahan, a testament to the Redskins coach’s approach to offense and commitment to the ground game even as the NFL has developed more than just a passing fancy for throwing the ball.

“He still understands the way you truly win in this league is controlling the line of scrimmage and being physical and getting everybody on a team to buy into that,” said Mark Schlereth, the left guard on Shanahan’s two Super Bowl-champion Broncos teams. “When we really good back then, when we were winning championships, it is because we ran the ball so much and it is because [quarterback John] Elway was sold out and understood the importance of running that football and what we were trying to accomplish.”

‘The defense can’t be right’

So much of the Redskins‘ success on offense this season has been thanks to Robert Griffin III, but he has more space to create because of Morris and the running game. Washington is far from the only team to use a zone blocking scheme, which essentially involves offensive linemen clearing lanes as a unit instead of worrying about individual defenders.

The Redskins just do it better than most.

“It’s almost, when it’s blocked right, the defense can’t be right,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “It’s either they try to beat us to play side and he hits it back side, or they try to play back side and he hits it play side. It really puts the defense in a hard spot. Don’t get me wrong, it can be stopped. But if you just keep plugging away at it, plugging away, you’re going to get big runs.”

The Redskins lead the NFL in rushing offense with 164.8 yards a game and are No. 1 in yards per play and yards per carry up the middle.

That’s no accident, just the fruits of Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme coming together.

“I think it allows the runner to be patient,” left guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “It all stretches to the side and it allows the running back to be patient and I think eventually the lanes that are open in our scheme are bigger than any other running lanes you’re going to see across the NFL.”

Right guard Chris Chester said offensive linemen take special pride in being responsible for skill players enjoying success.

“We give the running back an opportunity to be one-on-one a lot,” Chester said. “I think in this league it’s hard to tackle anybody one-on-one. … It kind of multiplies what we can do and how successful we can be in the run game.”

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