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Figuring out the Running Back rotation

It took an highly productive and highly impressive outing for running back Ryan Torain to remind us of what he’s done for us in the past, and what he’s capable of doing, when healthy.

In his first action of 2011, Torain ran for 135 yards (a season high for any Redskins running back) and a touchdown on just 19 carries, averaging over seven yards per carry in last week’s win over the St. Louis Rams. With all the talk about the acqusition (and stellar preseason) of the recently-acquired Tim Hightower and rookie draft pick Roy Helu, coupled with a preaseason hand injury, Ryan Torain was basically the forgotten man in the Redskins group of running backs (he didnt have a single regular season carry before the game against St. Louis). People forget that, in not even 10 games worth of work last season, Torain had 742 yards rushing and four rushing touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry; extrapolate those numbers out to a 16 game season, and you’re looking at roughtly 1185 yards and 6 touchdowns, some very solid output.

Take nothing away from Tim Hightower. He’s a very solid running back, and a valuable member of the Redskins backfield rotation. From all accounts, he’s an unselfish, team-oriented guy who’s more concerned with doing the right things instead of worrying about his own numbers. He’s got a nice blend of size, speed, and strength, and he’s a really good pass blocker as well. His one one-cut-and-go style of running makes him a great fit for what the Redskins do, as far as their blocking and running scheme.

But last weekend, Torain showed us what he’s just as good a fit for said schemes, and when he’s healthy, he brings a unique skillset which the other guys in the Redskins backfield simply don’t have. While Hightower is really good at waiting for his blocks to develop and then gliding through the opening created, against the Rams last week, Torain ran with a level of explosion and power that we just haven’t seen from our running backs this year. When he gets an opening from the line, he runs through it like he was shot out of a cannon, happily running through anyone that stands in his path.

After his highly successful preseason, overzealous Redskins fans were comparing Tim Hightower to the legendary Hall of Famer John Riggins (completely ridiculous, considering it was done based on preseason success), but Torain has been the one who’s shown that he’s more capable of shrugging off tacklers and barrels through others, much like “The Diesel” did. And it’s not like Torain’s simply just a power back, either. While he’s not going to be mistaken for a speed back, he’s definitely got some burst to him, and he’s surprisingly nifty with a little bit of “shake and bake” (as the kids like to say) once he gets in the open field.

So what now? It’s clear that Hightower, after getting close to 60 carries and 70 touches through the first three games, he might not be suited for that kind of workload. Not even four games into the season, the Redskins coaching staff said that Hightower started to look “sluggish” and was limited by a little bit of a shoulder injury.

I’m a big fan of Torain’s game (as if that’s not evident already). The more I watch Torain and the way he runs, he reminds me a lot of Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, last year’s rushing title champion. They’re both decisive, slashing, downhill runners with great burst through the hole and surprising speed. But it’s no secret that Torain’s injury history is what’s limited him from becoming the feature back that he has the potential to be.

While everyone talks about Mike Shanahan as if he perpetually changes his feature back without any real rhyme or reason, I think that theory is a bit overblown. Since 1999 (the year Terrell Davis first got hurt), Shanahan has never had a feature running back with less than 233 carries (roughly 14 carries/game) over the course of a season. Whether it was Pro Bowl runners like Davis or Clinton Portis, or guys nobody had really heard of like Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Reuben Droughns, or Tatum Bell, Shanahan history has proven that when he finds the guy he wants to ride as his feature back, he’ll stick with him for anything from 230 to 290+ carries per season.

Can Torain be that guy? If he stays healthy (again, a very dicey proposition), I absolutely believe so. Before going down with a hamstring injury, Torain was averaging over 16 carries for 76 yards per game (about 4.64 yards per carry). After recovering from the injury, he averaged over 18 carries for 87 yards (about 4.8 yards per carry) per game for the final four games of last year. In 2011, Torain already has as many carries for 20+ yards in one game (two) as Tim Hightower and Roy Helu have had all season.

Now, all of this isn’t to say that there isn’t room for guys like Hightower and Helu on this team. Quite the contrary, actually. With an unpredictable and erratic quarterback like Rex Grossman, and the talent assembled in the backfield behind him, it’d behoove this team to run the football as often as possible, splitting the carries strategically among the running backs.

My solution would be something like a 240/160/120 split among the running backs. Torain could/should finish the season with something close to 240 carries (15 per game), while serving as the Redskins battering-ram running back. Hightower could log 160 carries (10 per game) as the change-of-pace relief runner, occasional pass catcher, and pass blocking specialist. And right when an opposing defense is really starting to suck wind and tire out from dealing with Torain and Hightower all game, you finish them off by gashing them with speedy bursts from Roy Helu for 7-8 carries per game (especially if they come in the 2nd half).

Today’s NFL is easily more passing-oriented than it’s ever been in the history of the game, with quarterbacks putting up Nintendo numbers week after week. But as the weather gets colder and the wear-and-tear of the season starts to set in on defenses, the teams who can control the line of scrimmage and the time of possession are always going to have an advantage.

The Redskins simply don’t have the offensive capability (mostly because of their quarterback play) where they can go toe-to-toe in a shoot-out with the higher octane offenses in this league. And with matchups with all three NFC East foes (including twice against Philadelphia) plus games against New England, the New Jork Jets, and Buffalo (currently sitting at 4-1) still remaining on the schedule, the identity of this offense has to go through it’s running game.

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One Response to “Figuring out the Running Back rotation”

  1. 007 says:

    “……..the identity of this offense has to go through it’s running game……..” RAJAN NANAVATI

    You wouldn’t be saying that if the REDSKINS had a real QB.

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