The Redskins again succeeded Sunday with a combination of three running backs, but two costly fumbles overshadowed the emerging consistency from the run game.
The Redskins ran for 134 yards on Sunday against the Detroit Lions. It was a far cry from the 230 rush yards against Philadelphia the week prior, but the consistency was encouraging. Sunday marked the first time this season that the Redskins had run for more than 100 yards in consecutive games. Washington is sixth in the NFL in yards per carry this season with a healthy 4.8 yards per rush.
However, most, if not all, of that went unnoticed. First, the continued rushing success came in a loss. Second, the running game was also responsible for two key turnovers in the Redskins' 20-17 loss to the Lions.
With the Redskins knocking on the door of the end zone late in the first quarter, starting running back Matt Jones was fighting for extra yards at the Lions' two-yard line when the ball was knocked loose from his grasp. Detroit recovered and kicked a field goal on the ensuing drive. Then in the third quarter, quarterback Kirk Cousins tripped on a lineman's lower leg and fumbled as he fell trying to hand it off to Jones. Again, Detroit recovered and turned it into three points. In a game Washington lost by three points, the fumbles became an obvious cost.
"We fumbled twice. That's big, we can't fumble first-and-goal at the six running into the end zone," Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said.
Unfortunately for Jones, the fumble looms larger for him as he has struggled with ball security throughout the early stages of his career. He's fumbled eight times on 270 touches in his career – an average of one fumble for every 34 touches. However, Jones has been very good for the Redskins in his second NFL season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry – the eighth-most by a running back with at least 90 carries this season. He will remain involved with Washington's running game throughout this season despite having his workload lowered Sunday after his first-quarter fumble.
"Yeah, that's a tough deal, it's a tough deal," Gruden said in his press conference Monday. "You can't put the ball on the ground as a running back. That's just rule number one. So, that's something we have to address and look at as a staff. And as far as his confidence, we're more worried about the team success than somebody's confidence. We've got to make sure we protect the ball, and that's everybody. He understands the magnitude of fumbling the football. If he doesn't, he does now. I mean, he should know it by now. But unfortunately he was trying to get an extra yard there at the goal line, he took his eyes off the exchange on another time, tried to make the cut before he got the ball, we fumbled again. So, something that has to be addressed."
What remains unclear is just how involved Jones will be. His 10 carries Sunday were the lowest since Week 1 against Pittsburgh when Washington fell behind big. And while Jones was able to total just 27 yards, the Redskins again boasted their depth at running back. Usual third-down back, Chris Thompson, totaled 73 yards on 12 carries while catching seven passes for 40 yards. Robert Kelley had 15 yards rushing on four carries and scored his first career touchdown with a one-yard catch in the fourth quarter.
"I really started getting comfortable out there," Thompson said. "We kind of got behind, so I figured we would be in a lot of situations where I'd probably be in the game, getting more touches. It felt good, just wished we could have came out with the win.
"As games go on, you're going to have a fumble here and there; things might not go right with Matt or Rob, or even me for that matter. Sometimes, you just got to give a guy a little bit of a break to get his mind together, so you keep going. So you knew me and Rob needed to take over for a little bit."
Thompson, a fifth-round pick by the Redskins in 2013, has already eclipsed his career-high for carries in a season with 38 (he carried it 35 times last season). After gaining 6.2 yards per carry last season, Thompson is at 5.1 per rush this season. Of course, Thompson would have to prove he can handle a heavier workload – his 12 carries Sunday were a career-high.
"I think that's a great number for him," Gruden said of Thompson's 19 touches. "We don't want to overdo it with him – he's still not a very big guy. We're not going to give up on Matt. We just have got to make sure that he protects the dang football. Obviously Rob is doing a nice job with the limited time that he gets. Maybe it's just expand Rob's role a little bit, expand Chris' role a little bit. But you get all three of those guys active and just continue to stress the importance of ball security – that's not just the running backs, that's everybody."