It has not been the start that Redskins running back Alfred Morris wanted.
Ten times during a breakthrough rookie season last year, Morris carried the ball 20 times or more. In the decisive Dec. 30 win over the Dallas Cowboys he carried the ball 33 times for a devastating 200 yards.
Such a workload has eluded him this year, in part because the Redskins were hopelessly behind in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. Two weeks ago against the Oakland Raiders, Morris left late in the third quarter after aggravating a rib injury.
Morris has practiced fully three times this week and plans to play in Sunday’s showdown against the Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. But he will wear extra padding to protect himself from further injury.
“When you really look at it, we’re behind on the scoreboard, so we have to pass more,” Morris said. “I haven’t had that many carries as I did last year. It’s not that teams know who I am. They do know that, but at the same time, I’m not getting that many carries. As long as we win, I can’t care less.”
A breakthrough may prove difficult for Morris against a stout Cowboys run defense. Dallas may be a disaster in the secondary, but its switch to a 4-3 alignment from a 3-4 has proven beneficial in one way: opponents are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. Dallas has given up 414 rushing yards, seventh-fewest in the NFL.
Still, Washington will have to find a way. Even with the Cowboys struggling to cover in the secondary, teams can’t afford to be one-dimensional. New Dallas defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is willing to use his personnel to try to limit big plays and allow shorter gains.
According to Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the way to beat a defense like that is using tight ends and backs in the passing game and running the ball. That balance is a necessity.
“It’s essential to us. We’ve got a couple guys back there who can really tote the rock for us and you have to give them the opportunity to do that,” Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “Whether it’s Alfred, [Roy] Helu, or [Evan] Royster or anybody who has to step back there to take some carries, we want to get that game rolling.”
Griffin said that also helps his offensive linemen, who don’t have to simply pass-block all the time. That group certainly took advantage of Morris’ talents last year in two wins over the Cowboys. He finished with a combined 313 rushing yards and four touchdowns. But that also came against a 3-4 defense. Those numbers will be tougher to come by this time around.
The one issue for Dallas? It has been missing three key defensive linemen in Anthony Spencer (season-ending knee surgery), Tyrone Crawford (Achilles tendon tear) and Jay Ratliff, who remains on the physically unable to perform list following sports hernia surgery last year.
Still, the Cowboys have been solid against the run so far even without those players. Morris has yet to carry the ball more than 16 times in a game this season and touched the ball just 12 times in the Sept. 9 season opener against Philadelphia.
“[Morris] can’t dictate how many times he gets ball — the flow of the game, if you’re ahead or behind,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “So he’s a pretty smart guy. He understands those carries will come, and when they do come, he wants to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Morris has shown signs of a breakthrough. His best numbers came against Green Bay in that ugly 38-20 loss on Sept. 15 with 107 yards. Last time out against the Raiders he posted a season-high 16 carries with 71 yards in less than three quarters. Morris is averaging 5.3 yards per carry, which is better than he put up during a strong rookie season (4.8). He’s ready for more, but willing to wait.
“My fun isn’t dependent upon how many carries I get or how many touchdowns I score or how many yards I get,” Morris said. “I get to do what I love to do each and every day. That’s my fun. Just stepping on that field, being blessed enough to be able to be in the NFL. Hundreds and thousands of people wish they were in our shoes, but they’re not. I don’t take this for granted.”