Mike Shanahan has overseen a massive renovation of the Redskins backfield this offseason and there’s little question expectations are much higher for his fabled zone-blocking attack. But it is still in doubt if any of the backs on the roster are suited for the third down role the team struggled to fill in 2010.
Using Pro Football Focus’ Pass Blocking Efficiency formula (Sacks added to three quarters of Hits and Hurries, divided by the amount of snaps in pass protection multiplied by 100), the Redskins current stable of running backs is still missing someone who can be proficient in pass protection.
Ryan Torain, Tim Hightower and Keiland Williams all ranked in the bottom 15 in pass protection among running backs last season. If there is no improvement in keeping the quarterback upright, it won’t matter who is under center.
Recurring injuries aside, the biggest knock on Torain’s game in 2010 was his inability to contribute on third downs as a blocker or a receiver. He struggled in blitz pickup and caught just 18 passes out of the backfield.
Torain’s third down woes were a reason he didn’t make the Redskins final roster before week one. Once he was called up from the practice squad he took 62 third down snaps, allowing six QB pressures. Only six running backs had a PBE lower than Torain’s 8.47.
With Torain struggling in that role, Mike Shanahan leaned more heavily on Williams throughout the season. Though Williams had 39 receptions, he fared no better in pass protection. On 87 third down snaps, he surrendered seven QB pressures for a PBE of 6.32, tenth-worst in the NFL.
The Redskins were often undone by the fact their offensive line was wildly inconsistent and it didn’t help matters when Shanahan had no consistent pass blocking running back on his roster. Injuries kept elite third down back Clinton Portis out of 11 games, and the Redskins converted just 29 percent of their third down attempts in 2010.
Portis’ exploits as a blocker can’t be overstated. From 2008-2010, no running back bested his PBE number of 2.07 and he allowed just five QB pressures in that time frame.
It’s no wonder the Redskins were linked to Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason because the Giants’ back finished second to Portis with a PBE of 2.21 in those three seasons. Bradshaw is one of the few every-down backs left in existence and the Giants were wise to keep him in the fold given the turnover on their offensive line.
Since Bradshaw opted to stay in New York, the Redskins settled for Hightower, a traditional one-cut Shanahan runner. Hightower was a terrific addition based on his offensive production, but while the former Cardinal is a more durable option than Torain, he isn’t the pass blocking back Washington needs. In 119 third down snaps, he allowed nine QB pressures for a PBE of 6.30, just ahead of Williams.
So unless Roy Helu and Evan Royster can instantly step into the void as capable third down backs, things might not improve much for the Redskins on the make or break down. Hightower has been touted as a back who will be an upgrade to Washington’s third down offense, but in reality he isn’t much better than Torain or Williams as a pass blocker.