After they traded for Smith, they started studying how teams used mobile quarterbacks and implemented more run-pass options and zone-read plays. The result: 182 yards rushing on 42 carries in the season-opening victory Sunday at Arizona.
“We adjusted our run game and will continue to adjust,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “It could look totally different. It could be nonexistent.”
Colts coach Frank Reich knows this strategy well. He called these run-pass option plays often as the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia last year. He said more teams are using creative looks in the run game. So the Colts’ defense, like Washington’s, has seen this tactic all summer in camp.
“There’s so many different variations to the RPO game,” Reich said. “It’s almost endless, and I’m already seeing so many more teams and so many more plays that are incorporating that. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Smith rushed for just 14 yards, but he was a factor as well. The Redskins designed a rushing attack that incorporated elements from their past as well as from Smith’s time in San Francisco and Kansas City.
“He does offer you the element of a running quarterback, and it’s legitimate,” Gruden said. “He can really run and it helps. It helps that he’s been in a lot of different systems where they do similar things.”
Smith said for a playcaller, an RPO can provide an advantage.
“In the past, if you were having to choose between run and pass, you had to make that decision and kind of play that chess game as a playcaller,” Smith said. “Now you have them built into the same play, and the defense dictates where the ball goes. Some weeks they make a ton of sense based on what you are seeing scheme-wise and from a personnel standpoint. Other weeks they don’t and won’t be as good.”
The Redskins are using more jet-sweep action and have receivers run in motion as if on an end-around. They’ll use zone-read action to freeze a backside defender. The Redskins have used some of these strategies in the past, but it was more evident Sunday.
“A lot of times, that backside end is hard to cut off, especially against some 4-3 teams,” Gruden said. “At least you’re taking someone out of the equation, where if you just turn and hand the ball off, they’re all flying over there. … We’re just trying to slow backside pursuit just a little bit.”
Even Peterson, who has made a Hall of Fame career out of running the power game inside, was included in shotgun-formation runs. He has averaged 4.8 yards per carry in his career, but 3.8 from a shotgun formation. From 2014-17, he averaged 2.08 yards per carry out of the shotgun.
Last Sunday, Peterson had mixed results from the gun with six carries for 21 yards — but 17 came on one run. And that run exemplified what the Redskins wanted.
They sent receiver Paul Richardson in motion from left to right, as if he were going to catch a bubble screen pass behind two receivers. Smith then froze the outside linebacker with a zone-read fake. It’s not always an RPO, but the point is the same: Provide multiple options for the quarterback and cause the defense on one side of the field to hesitate.
That gave Peterson plenty of room. The first time a defender threatened contact was eight yards downfield. Washington ran 14 times for 85 yards on plays out of the shotgun or pistol, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“He’ll get better,” Gruden said. “A lot of times a back like Adrian wants to stick it up quicker, and some of these plays you have to let develop more and maybe cut back later than you normally would. But his eyes will be in the right spot and continue to get better with the paths we want him to go. He’ll be fine.”
Smith only ran three times for six yards out of pistol or shotgun formation. The Redskins did use zone-read looks with Kirk Cousins in the past, mostly as a surprise than as a staple. But based on Sunday’s success, they will tap into Smith’s experience running these looks and his ability to run.
On Thompson’s first carry, the Redskins showed bubble action to the right, with Smith eyeing the backside end on a zone-read handoff. It created a numbers advantage to the left, and Thompson gained 10 of his 13 yards before being touched.
“We know if he hands it off, there’s a gap somewhere,” Thompson said. “It won’t happen like that every time. But most times we know as long as we’re patient as running backs, it opens up outside or inside.”