WASHINGTON — The Washington Redskins need to learn whether running back Matt Jones is truly their starter, and the only way to do that is run him often in the preseason.
Forget a few snaps with the starters when facing the New York Jets on Friday. After quarterback Kirk Cousins and other starters finish their short stints, keep playing Jones. No matter the team needs to learn whether Keith Marshall or Robert Kelley is prime back worthy. That time will come in the second half or later in the preseason.
For now, the Redskins’ biggest uncertainty is Jones and it is time to find out whether the brief promise at least year’s start was real or the most of his lackluster rookie season the instead the real deal.
“We’re not going to panic after the first preseason game,” Gruden said. “But we also understand that these games, you are what you are based on what you put on the tape. … With Matt, it would be nice to get him two, three, four carries in a row to get a rhythm going and see how he does then. That will be our intent [against New York] — to try to get him going and see how he does.”
The Redskins have been long spoiled with durable, productive running backs. Alfred Morris (2012-15) opened with a record-setting rookie year and was still solid the next two. Clinton Portis’ (2004-2010) 6,824 yards nearly caught John Riggins’ (1976-79, ’81-85) team-record 7,472 yards. Stephen Davis (1996-2002) and Terry Allen (1995-98) combined for nearly 10,000 yards.
It may be a passing league, but nobody wins without at least a fair running game. The Redskins have gambled Jones can balance an offense overflowing with receivers. He flared once against Atlanta on Thursday with an 11-yard gain that was negated by penalty, but also lost two yards on a horizontal run. Jones is a bruiser at 6-foot-2, 232 pounds and needs to run straight ahead.
“The one thing about Alfred was he was very durable,” Gruden said. “He was around week in and week out. That’s the one thing that we have to be able to count on with Matt. And injuries happen in the NFL, but hopefully he’s available for 16 weeks — very important.
“He can handle the workload and that’s to be determined. We have total faith that he will. We still have other backs here that we’re going to give the ball to. It’s not going to only be Matt Jones in the backfield. Chris Thompson will get a fair share and then whoever emerges as the No. 2 back, either Keith Marshall or the other guys here – Rob – we’ll see what happens.”
The Redskins need to run block better, too. The young unit is pretty good at pass blocking, which is handy for a team that should throw 60 percent of its snaps this season. But too often Jones and others haven’t seen much room inside since last season.
“I know for sure one of those runs the other night was a run that I easily could have audibled out of it and gone to a pass,” Cousins said. “But I decided to leave the run play on. It didn’t work and after the fact you’re thinking maybe next time go to the pass. By no means is it bad play calling or we’re not running the ball well. Sometimes it’s just that I can get out of the play and get us to a better play.”
But the only way the offense will get to better plays is if its running game scares defenses enough not to cheat against the pass. And that means Washington needs to decide over the next two weeks whether Jones is its primary back.
Rick Snider has covered Washington sports since 1978. Follow him on Twitter @Snide_Remarks.