Alfred Morris is Mike Shanahan’s latest 1,000-yard back
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.”
The right running mate
Morris, Anderson and Davis, a three-time All-Pro, were sixth-round picks. Olandis Gary went in the fourth round and Reuben Droughns in the third. None of the seven backs to rush for 1,000 yards in a season under Shanahan were taken in the first round, or any higher than No. 41 overall.
Yet there’s a common misconception that Morris wants to dispel.
“Not every running back can come in this system and be successful,” he said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, just put anybody in that offense, it’ll work.’ No, Coach Shanahan and [running backs] coach Bobby [Turner], they do a great job of finding backs who fit this system and make it work.”
Shanahan has never taken a running back in the first round, fostering the notion that it doesn’t take anything special to take advantage of his system. But perhaps taking chances in late rounds is part of how it clicks.
“I think one of the reasons that some of these late-round draft picks have had so much success is because they’re righting for jobs and they never had the breakouts in college, they never freelanced on their own, they never were those big-time running backs,” said Schlereth, now an analyst for ESPN. “So when they get into Mike’s system they’re willing to trust and do what their coaches said because they’re not superstars coming in. They don’t have a sense of entitlement.”
Without any notion of entitlement, Morris worked his way up the depth chart during the preseason, capitalizing on injuries to Hightower, Royster and Helu. He was the starter by default, but his impressive performances didn’t catch the coaching staff by surprise.
At pick No. 137, the Redskins hoped they were getting a steal.
“When you see him on tape, he had a lot of running skills. He was on a team that struggled, Florida Atlantic,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said in September. “But when he ran the ball, he ran hard. He could put his foot down and he’s a violent cutter.”
Morris just fit. As he said, under Mike Shanahan, “You have to be like a one-cut-and-go type of back, you definitely have to be a tough runner.” Teammates credit Morris for not letting the first would-be tackler bring him down, something that sets him apart even at the pro level.
Instincts, Lichtensteiger said, and knowing when and where to run, make all the difference.
“It takes a running back with good vision. Good vision and good patience,” Williams said. “Not every running back can [do] it. Once the running back gets a grasp of the whole concept, they can really shine in it.”
‘The value of a nasty 2’
In order to shine in Shanahan’s scheme, running backs like Morris and Davis take on a certain burden of physical punishment. It’s not a free-wheeling running game; it’s predicated on grinding down a defense and setting up play-action passes.
“Most coaches look at a 2-yard run and they look at it as a failure, a disappointment,” Schlereth said. “And Mike Shanahan understands the value of a nasty 2 and what it’s going to do for him in the play-action, what it’s going to do for him at the end of the game when those nasty 2s become 8s and 9s because a defense is worn out.”
Schlereth recalled a conversation with ex-New York Jets and Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini at ESPN headquarters last week in which he and Mangini discussed for an hour the difficulties of countering Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme. No matter what Mangini tried, he couldn’t figure out how to defend it.
The way Shanahan and his offensive linemen explain it, it sounds so simple: Win battles in the trenches, let the running back follow the plan and watch the yards pile up.
“What you normally do with the zone blocking scheme is you get people running from maybe the hash mark all the way to the sideline and then if you see a crease inside, a running back, he hits it downhill running,” Shanahan said. “We feel if one person is a little bit slow or doesn’t stay in their gap, we have a chance to hit a crease. Try and never really lose yardage. You always get 3, 4 or 5 yards but if somebody gets tired, especially as the game goes on, you’re able to get some big plays.”
That’s because what the running game produces, in addition to hard-earned yards and first downs, is a sense of uneasiness on the part of a defense.
“I think that’s really where he gives people fits,” Schlereth said, “because you basically get into a cat and mouse game, and the problem is, he’s always the cat.”
By engineering so much success with his zone-blocking scheme Shanahan also gets linemen and running backs to unflinchingly believe in what he calls. Even if a defense expects a run, there’s no reason to abandon the plan.
“We know that we can demoralize a defense that comes up there there and says, ‘We’re going to force you to throw the ball,’ and we say, ‘No, we dictate to you. You’re not forcing us to do anything. We’re going to do what we want to do,’ ” Schlereth said. “That’s a powerful position.”
So powerful that it’s worth wondering why more NFL teams don’t do it Shanahan’s way. “You’ve got to have 11 guys buy in,” Schlereth said. “I think it’s hard to coach. It’s hard to get everybody on the same page.”
Once that happens though, it’s full speed ahead.
“The challenge there is you have to win one of those spots,” Chester said. “If we’re right, there’s not really a great way to defend it.”
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