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When it comes to making the Redskins’ 53, the games matter more than practice

Aug 14, 2016, 11:55 AM EDT

Robert Kelly camp USAT

RICHMOND—In practice on Saturday, rookie wide receiver Kendall Thompson went deep. The pass was slightly overthrown but Thompson lunged at just the right moment and made the grab. It was the best individual offensive play of the day.

But it may not have helped Thompson much in his quest to make the team, or even the practice squad. He played only five snaps against the Falcons on Thursday and he didn’t have a pass thrown his way. Five snaps and zero targets doesn’t give a player much of a chance to make an impression against players wearing different helmets. And while Jay Gruden doesn’t dismiss the importance of practice, he clearly believes that what happens in preseason games counts more.

The cut to 53 is due on September 3, just shy of three weeks from today. Gruden was asked if any separation had started to develop on the roster after two weeks of camp and a preseason game.

“I think you’re starting to see a little bit, but there is still a lot of ball left to be played,” said Gruden. “We still have some good practice work to do and then obviously the two games that are going to be very important for a lot of these guys. There are some tight battles, but we got to see a lot of them in the game against Atlanta and then we’ll see some more in the next two games against Buffalo and the Jets and I’ll make our determination.”

Maybe I’m reading this wrong but it sure sounds to me like what happens in the games will matter a whole lot more than what happens in those half dozen or so “good practices” that will take place between now and September 3.

There is no doubt that practice is important. But practicing well is a given. Players make plays like Kendall Thompson as sort of a minimum level of competence that qualify a player to get some snaps in a game.

So does this mean that Robert Kelley has the edge over Keith Marshall for a roster spot at running back? Kelley ran for 40 yards on seven carries against the Falcons while Marshall posted minus-one yard on five attempts. Maybe, but not necessarily. It’s possible that Marshall had nowhere to run while Kelley got better blocking. Maybe Kelley didn’t go where he was supposed to go on some plays but got a good result out of it anyway. The evaluation goes well beyond just numbers.

But if we are to believe what Gruden said, should the next three preseason games go by and Kelley and Marshall have roughly the same number of carries and one has 40 more yards per game than the other, the player with more yards is a pretty good bet to make the team.

Again, practice is important for young players like Marshall, Kelley, and Thompson. But they had better follow up solid weeks of practices with coming up big in the preseason games if they want to be on that list of 53 players in a few weeks.

  1. redskins12thman - Aug 14, 2016 at 12:03 PM

    Yes, I agree. This situation is amplified by lack of tackling and NFL scrimmage partner at training camp. Cut to 75 is on August 30th. I expect the RB / CB battles to be among the two that last the longest.

  2. abanig - Aug 14, 2016 at 12:43 PM

    Marshall is going to have to do more than what he did to make the team, I don’t care if the play wasn’t blocked perfectly or not; as BMitch says all the time – talking in reference to Jones also – even if the play isn’t blocked perfectly, running backs still have to make something out of nothing sometimes and they have to run harder. There doesn’t seem to be any tough running and the refusal to go down and break several tackles like we saw from Alfred Morris in the past.

    Both Jones and Marshall must be better. IMO Marshall is in real jeopardy of losing the battle to be the 3rd running back out to Robert Kelley.

    • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:18 PM

      I have to agree about Marshall. And I’ll throw my hat in the ring for Kelley too. I don’t really care about the excuses right now. Marshall looked bad. He had no vision. He looked like a guy who got by on athleticism his whole life and never really learned the position. On his first run, not great blocking, but there were 2-3 yards to get if he immediately rushed to the point of attach (I believe on Moses outside shoulder, and inside the TE, but I could be remembering that wrong). Instead, he didn’t see a giant hole, so he immediately bounced it outside and got taken down for a loss. It appears that if he can’t scream around the edge unblocked that he’s not going to do anything. All he had to do was hit that hole hard and we get 2-3 yards.

      Kelley on the other hand: I’m almost positive I saw a couple plays where he didn’t run where he was supposed to BUT it was a good thing. He saw the blocking was bad and bounced it somewhere else. It wasn’t all great but you could see the potential. He appeared to have actual vision and decisiveness. I love how he made his quick cuts and hit his hole. But we can’t ignore the level of competition. I hope Kelley gets some first team reps, especially in the 3rd game, so we can really see what he’s about.

      Jones: too little to really know (which is technically true about all of them). If he would just finish runs I think he would be acceptable. I wonder if the extreme focus on not fumbling got in his head and he’s just cowering down and clamping on the ball as soon as the defense makes contact. He’s got to keep his shoulders square, stay low, and keep those legs moving. We only need 3 yards on first down. A guy his size should get that.

      • abanig - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:26 PM

        Yeah, I agree. I hope Kelley gets to play some with the first team OL this week so we can evaluate him better and then Marshall can play vs the back ups in the second half and maybe find his groove.

        I’d like to see their roles reversed for the second preseason game. I still don’t want to see Jones playing more than a quarter but I do want to see him get about 5 carries or so before calling it a night.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:30 PM

          Sounds perfect to me!

          And let’s be honest too. The run blocking wasn’t great. They didn’t have Williams, but it’s not like Atlanta had all their stars out there either. They have to do better. They might also consider playing Logan Paulson with the 1s too so they can evaluate how he blocks against better competition. Because he looked good out there. But he was playing nobody.

        • abanig - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:32 PM

          Yeah I agree. The run game just isn’t in sync yet, that’s something that happens through repetition.

        • abanig - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:35 PM

          I actually think that ATL had all of their front 7 starters starting. Keanu Neal didn’t play but their starting front 7 guys all started.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 3:50 PM

          I kind of forgot Worrilow started. He only had a huge tackle that was impossible to miss. Did Spoon start too? I was so focused on our guys that I didn’t really pay attention to Atlanta’s players unless the announcers pointed them out. They just talked about Jones and Campbell so much that I thought they started. And they looked pretty good, but they’re still rookies. They missed on some assignments that we should have exploited in the run.

          Atlanta’s pass rush is also embarrassing. I’m a big Vic Beasley fan but he’s learning a new position (OLB) and looked slow to react at times. But he was still a handful for Moses. Moses got the job done, and Beasley may be a top edge rusher someday, but he’s not there yet. I’m being really nit pickey here but I would have liked to see Moses do better on a few plays. I don’t know how much they’re going to use Feeeney, but I did notice he didn’t play either.

          It was honestly a good team to play to get rid of the rust and get going. It’s good that they held their own against a starting front 7, but they HAVE to do better run blocking. I still think Lauvao is the best option at LG. With Williams back, Lauvao and Kory shaking off the rust, and Scherff/Moses in their second year, these guys really should do better.

        • abanig - Aug 14, 2016 at 4:38 PM

          I agree about Lauvao and Kory L. They are both working off the rust and getting into game shape/sync.

  3. redskinsnameisheretostay - Aug 14, 2016 at 12:54 PM

    Chris Thomposon is going nowhere if he avoids major injury. Why are we rating Thompsons performance more on preseason games when we all seen what he does in actual games against actual starters. What was average per run and catch last season???

    • redskinsnameisheretostay - Aug 14, 2016 at 12:57 PM

      I can’t retract this and my bad Rich on misreading your post. I actually went back after this comment because I realized something couldn’t be right about what I read from you.

    • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 2:27 PM

      Maybe the best thing that could happen for this run game is Thompson figures out a way to stay healthy and gets more carries. Because I’m not quite seeing it any other way. You wouldn’t happen to know Wolverine’s phone number would you? Thompson could probably use some adamantium bones right right about now.

      Seriously though, at what point do they just start calling all the veteran free agents? Is it really worth it to wait until the season starts so we don’t have to guarantee a tiny salary? I would rather the vet get some camp reps. They have to learn the offense too. Most of the good free agents are already locked up, and I can’t imagine a player getting cut who’s better than Pierre Thomas at this point. Let’s just get it over with. We’ll have Pierre Garcon, Rickey Jean Francois, and Pierre Thomas. Call them the French Foreign Legion and start the marketing campaign!

      • bangkokben - Aug 14, 2016 at 3:52 PM

        Thomas’ price is too high to play preseason football. He’ll sign 9/13. At the same time, the organization has to see what it has. They can only do this in game with the young guys. Relax. Thomas will be a Redskin sometime Tuesday the 13th unless Kelly, Marshall, or Brown suddenly become Tony Dorsett.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 7:16 PM

          I know this is something we’re just going to disagree on. You have a very rational and intelligent opinion about it. I’m being a little more of a frantic fan. But I understand all that but still want him here yesterday. I don’t know his exact asking price (or a ballpark) but it would have to be unusually high for me to not want him getting camp reps.

          I agree the team needs to see what it has in the young guys. I would be all for giving them most, it all, of the preseason game reps. But even longtime vets need practice and need to learn the new offensive scheme. A lot of stuff will be the same, but there will also be new stuff and I’m sure he’ll need some refreshers. I also doubt he mastered Gruden’s offense in his short time with us last year. I would also like him mentoring all of them. Every guy we currently have is young and could use a longtime pro like him.

          If we’re only keeping 3 guys (and I assume we are) that complicates things. Because then Marshall, Kelley, and Brown don’t really need the reps. And we need a vet who can carry the workload if Jones goes down. I don’t know that Pierre is that guy anymore. But he’s the best option left that I can think of. Waiting this long really limited our options. Who’s to say Justin Forsette doesn’t tear his ACL tomorrow (or someone else) and the Ravens don’t sign Pierre before Sep 13. You just never know. Plus if he was in camp they could evaluate him and plan appropriately. There’s a chance he doesn’t have it anymore.

        • bangkokben - Aug 15, 2016 at 9:08 AM

          All fair points. “If we’re only keeping 3 guys …then Marshall, Kelley, and Brown don’t really need the reps.” I’d counter this with: This is why they need to teps to see who has a future and a place in the organization. The team has to find out if any of them show any promise or are just guys that cling to the practice squad. At this point none of them look like “must keep” but it’s their first live NFL game too. You may have read this: http://www.espn.com/blog/washington-redskins/post/_/id/26223/with-pierre-thomas-still-unsigned-redskins-have-rb-options

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 15, 2016 at 2:26 PM

          Yeah I did see that article. And Keim, as usual, makes good points.

          One of my main reasons I’m not at ease about the run game even assuming we sign Thomas is exactly a point Keim kind of danced around: he’s probably not up to the task of being a workhorse. So say Jones gets injured and Thomas/Thompson are our lead guys. Each have great playmaking ability, mostly catching out of the backfield or on draws, but neither of them are downhill-workhorse type guys. Thomas would be an upgrade over Marshall for sure, but I’m not so sure he’s really what we need.

          That’s why I was entertaining myself by looking around the league for some other options last night. I don’t really expect any of those moves to get made, but it’s interesting to think about and it is a slim possibility. Basically, I think either Jones is going to pan out and be a good RB for us or we’re going to have an awful run game. Maybe historically awful. It’s that simple. But it’s also the predicament we’re in. Thomas is not some cure all for our issues.

          And yes, I agree the young guys need reps for the team to evaluate. But the guys who will actually be running the ball in actual games also need reps. And I would argue their reps are far more important. It’s a balancing act for the coaches, but it has to be done. There’s just no universe where the team is better off not giving an eventual starter/main rotational player reps. I’m not saying Jones, Thompson, and Thomas (were he on the team) need 10 carries a game. But they need something.

        • bangkokben - Aug 15, 2016 at 6:00 PM

          “So say Jones gets injured…” There really isn’t a contingency for that — yet. We’ll have to wait and see. I’d think Thomas could do it or platoon with whomever survives camp. I’m just not that worried about it because the running game isn’t the straw that stirs the drink but rather just the ice. Last year in 8 of the last 12 games, the Redskins running game average 2.47 yards per carry or worse. So half the season the Redskins running game WAS historically bad. Yet the team went on it’s playoff run during that stretch.

          I know your expectations for this year aren’t very high but you seem to anxious over an element of this team that will only make the team a notch better. If their running game doesn’t work, it’s probably not the difference between making the playoffs or not but rather whether they win a playoff game or not. At least that is how I see it.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 15, 2016 at 9:09 PM

          I’m all for passing the ball a lot too. That’s not even where the league is going, it’s where the league is. But the run game is still important. I’m not in your head, so I don’t know this for sure, but I think you believe the run is less important than it really is. You can’t successfully “sling the snot out of the ball” without at least the threat of a respectable run game. These offensive systems are like an organism. Some organs may play more of a prominent role but they’re symbiotic as a whole.

          Offenses rely on exploiting defensive weaknesses. At its most basic form it comes down to math. 1+1. Whoever has more wins. If there’s only 4 run stuffers, you have 5 run blockers, and you run: you win. If there’s 5 guys in coverage, you send 4 receivers, and you pass: you lose. But you have to be able to exploit those weaknesses. You can’t just throw every time or else they’ll drop all their defenders into coverage. You can sling the snot out of the ball but it will result in 3 and out, 3 and out, 3 and out.

          And I know what you’re thinking, if they drop all those guys into coverage then we will just run. But the run game has to be semi competent for that to work. Right now we still might only get a couple yards every run even if we have the mathematical advantage. And they’ll let us run for 3-4 yards every play all day because our defense probably won’t be good enough to completely shut the opposing offense down. The key is to keep the defense guessing and honest. That won’t happen if we don’t ever run the ball or can’t ever run the ball.

          So yes, I am concerned. Even in his prime Thomas wasn’t a prototypical workhorse back. He was more of a receiver. An every down Chris Thompson. He had some tough runs but it wasn’t his thing. He’s not in his prime anymore. If Jones doesn’t work out the pass will stall then my expectations will be really low. But my expectations will get much higher if they magically pull a run game out of a hat. I get the stats from last year but that’s a small sample size and, historically, that’s not a recipe for success. Even recent history. And they weren’t exactly playing the league’s top defenses. There are some defenses coming up who could crush our souls if we try passing 40 times.

          And I’m not all doom and gloom. I gave them 7-8 wins. And I’m not even trying to over react to one bad preseason game. Jones could break out and be a star. There’s just a lot being left to chance here and that makes me nervous. I think they’re going to struggle without a run game to lean on when the passing game fails. But we won’t really know for… a couple months probably.

        • bangkokben - Aug 16, 2016 at 1:33 AM

          We clearly have a disagreement but we also have a slight miscommunication of my expectations for a run/pass ratio. I was watching the NFL network the other week and Eric “I never watch the Redskins” Davis gave his uninformed opinion. He said something about the Redskins’ run game and his comment was about how he wasn’t sure if Gruden was committed enough to the run. WTF? I know this was the perception of Gruden when he got hired and throughout his first year here but last year the Redskins would’ve been top five in run-to-pass ratio if only there was ANY SEMBLANCE OF SUCCESS when running. After the quarter pole, there was none, yet the Redskins continued to pound the ball — especially on first down. When I say, “sling the snot out of the ball.” I simply want THE NATIONALLY PERCEIVED Gruden. Last year the Redskins were 19th in pass percentage at 58.65%. In Gruden’s last season in Cincy, the Bengals were 21st at 56.97%. I simply want it at or just above 60.00% but especially on first down and BECAUSE of the strengths and weaknesses of the offense. New England was at 65% last season which is why Tom Brady got bludgeoned against Denver.

          Look there is more than one way to skin a cat and if you can’t run; then don’t. It’s that simple. And what I mean by that is of course you still have to run but you don’t have to THAT much.

          As for offense, it’s not about numbers but more about winning the individual match-ups whether that be blocking or running pass routes. Defenses regularly rush just four and have seven in coverage. At the same time there are only five eligible receivers on any given play and usually you keep in one or more for protection. Yet offenses more often than not win that battle. When I say win that battle, I mean yards toward a first down. I like Football Outsiders DVOA and think that is the best measurement. The Redskins run game very rarely won any battles because blockers couldn’t consistently win their individual match-ups. (If it were only one person what an easy fix that would be.) Instead running the ball put the team in harder down and distance. Throwing short on first down and getting four yards is a helluva lot better than rushing for two. Success (gaining a first down) is more likely and you can still use the whole playbook making it harder on the defense — and that could be a check down pass not necessarily the play called.

          “The key is to keep the defense guessing and honest. That won’t happen if we don’t ever run the ball or can’t ever run the ball.” I completely agree with that but success is only limited if the team CAN’T run. A team that runs 40% of the time but is unsuccessful still allows the team a chance to succeed if the passing game is dynamic. If it’s just average, no. The Redskins don’t have an average passing game — see below. Say what you will about the defenses they’ll face; but the talent, the scheme, and the QB’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly put it above average.

          Going back to DVOA, last year the Redskins’ pass offense was 31.4% ABOVE average or 6th in the NFL — 4th if you don’t adjust for the defenses they played. Conversely, their run game was last in the league — 31st if you don’t adjust for defense — and 23.5% below average. These numbers aren’t even close. Of course the run game needs to improve and there still needs to be a commitment to the run but when every run play called gives you a 20% less than average chance at success compared than a 30% better than average chance, it’s holding the offense back.

          Now, I have hope that Jones will be fine. That he’ll get four yards a carry and that will be fine but there is zero change to the personnel in the run game. In other words there are no new starters or significant back-ups. Surely, there will be some difference with Paul, Paulsen, and Davis but the lion’s share of any improvement will be: the team flat out worked, got it done, and improved individually and therefore corporately. If that doesn’t happen, then don’t run. Throw.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 16, 2016 at 2:27 PM

          Well we actually don’t disagree as much as I thought. I’m cool with a 60/40. Especially if the pass is effective and the run is terrible. A lot of these disagreements just come down to defining something.

          I still maintain that it is about numbers. That you will win more individual matchups than you lose if you tilt the math to your favor. And that there’s major, major issues if you constantly have two blockers on one and can’t win. But I digress.

          This team should be fine running the ball around a 60/40 ratio while using screens, quick outs, slants, sweeps, etc. etc. to help supplement the run. Defenses can’t play deep coverage if you’re doing a lot of that too. And that’s where Thomas and Thompson excel. Honestly, there’s a chance Matt Jones becauses better at screens than anything else. He has the hands, but also size and speed to be a force there.

        • bangkokben - Aug 16, 2016 at 11:24 PM

          I expect good things from the backs in the passing game. I agree that Jones could do some major damage in space with his size, speed, and power.

          As for the numbers thing we’re not aligned. In theory it works but not when it comes down to execution. Chris Cooley became a fan favorite finding the soft spot in a zone. Desean Jackson consistently beats double coverage but it doesn’t matter if the QB’s timing is off. The Redskins’ run schemes use double teams on the D-line but that matters not if the WR misses his block on the safety and the back can’t make the first guy miss. It comes down to execution and the Redskins fail to execute in the run game.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 15, 2016 at 9:24 PM

          Just one more quick thing (sorry, I didn’t realize how long that last one was until I sent it):

          I’m actually quite optimistic about Kelly all things considered. You know how I am about undrafted or late round guys. But I’m holding on to some hope that he pulls through for us. He has a lot of work to do, but you could see the potential on Thursday. Albeit against scrubs. I’m also fairly optimistic that Jones will have relatively good season if he stays healthy. It’s just injuries Im worried about with Jones and Thompson.

      • mtskins - Aug 14, 2016 at 4:20 PM

        Agree with Ben. He sets his price high mostly because he seems to have zero interest in going through the preseason grind. As long as he is in shape when the team goes to sign him I don’t see the harm in it. He knows the offense already and really has nothing to prove. I’m all for letting Kelley, Marshall, and Brown get all the reps they can.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 14, 2016 at 7:19 PM

          I must have missed his asking price. Do you guys have a link or something?

          And I really think we put way too much faith in veterans “already knowing the offense” or being able to pick up the offense fast because of their experience. And I think he does have sown thjn g to prove because of his age and the fact that he took like 5 snaps last year. But hopefully you’re right.

        • mtskins - Aug 15, 2016 at 9:42 PM

          http://www.espn.com/blog/washington-redskins/post/_/id/26223/with-pierre-thomas-still-unsigned-redskins-have-rb-options

          So there isn’t an exact asking price. But based on last year/this year there is an idea .

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 16, 2016 at 3:02 AM

          Yeah I saw that. But, to me, it would have to be pretty unreasonably high for me to be ok with one of the 3 RBs in a comittee approach, or who could start if Jones gets injured, not getting any camp or preseason reps. And that’s assuming the price goes down at some point. Or someone else doesn’t pick him up. And we might want to ask ourselves if he’s really the guy we want if he’s just artificially bloating his asking price to avoid training camp. Pierre Thomas is not the only FA RB out there. I’ve been a pretty big fan of his for years (lived with one of my good friends who is a huge Saints fan so I watched a lot of their games). But I don’t want him if his heart isn’t truly in it.

          Im not accusing him of anything. Just something to chew on. Maybe our best option is either Kelly, Brown, Marshall (doubt it on that one), or another low draft pick/undrafted free agent who gets cut from another team. Thomas went undrafted. Every now and then there is a gem there. Not guys who were highly touted high school prospects and who played in big SEC programs (Marshall), but guys from small schools who flew under the radar (like Morris).

      • redskinsnameisheretostay - Aug 14, 2016 at 9:11 PM

        I just feel Chris Thompson is the best option by far over the others. I actually think he could have a break out season. Sure he is an injury liability but he is also IMO the best all around RB on the field. Players do overcome early injury issues but it does get more difficult as they age. Thompson is still young and has reported to look both good and fast in practice. I’m want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 15, 2016 at 3:28 AM

          I’m a big believer that players can overcome injury woes. And that we throw around “injury prone” way too much. That’s one of the reasons I never doubted Reed and I’m not worried about his contract. There are some guys who are just genetically prone to injuries, but it’s not as common as a lot of fans make it out.

          It’s anecdotal but I believe that because I saw it over and over in the military. Guys with multiple shoulder and knee injuries, mostly in the infantry but it’s also very prevalent for guys in SEAL training. A lot of them would eventually learn how to change their workout to better suit their body, and how to perform tasks hard on the body in a less risky way. That can be applied to NFL players for learning how to fall, when to go down, and also how to work out. There shouldn’t be any reason Thompson can’t do that too.

          And I agree with his talent. He looks great when he’s actually in action. And has looked great in actual game action. More of a Pierre Thomas (in his prime) type than a traditional RB. But the Saints won a lot of games with Thomas in the backfield. I would feel just fine about Thompson getting more carries as long as he’s up to it mentally.

      • redskinsnameisheretostay - Aug 14, 2016 at 9:17 PM

        Btw – I think adamantiam is available online now at 19.99 a bottle.

        • Trey Gregory - Aug 15, 2016 at 3:19 AM

          I wonder if that’s on the banned substance list?

  4. renhoekk2 - Aug 15, 2016 at 10:43 AM

    It’s obvious now that Scot needed to try and sign every UDFA RB that was available in April/May They should have came into camp with about 10 RBs on the roster. Or better yet ACTUALLY USE THAT 4TH RD PICK ON A RB. I seriously doubt that any of Jones, Thompson, Marshall, or Kelly would make even half the rosters in the NFL. Certainly none of them would start. I would think 3rd RB would be best case scenario for any of them. Scot gets a lot of love thrown his way. I think he needs to be held accountable for the state of our running game and the lack of talent at the RB position. The teams he helped shape in SF and SEA had Pro Bowl talent at RB in Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. He can’t honestly look at the current roster and say he see’s that type of player on this team. He has to fundamentally understand what a huge difference a good RB and running game would make to this team. Despite the success he’s had at other jobs he seems to treating the RB position as an afterthought here.

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