Alfred Morris Wrong Read

Alfred Morris’ Fit in Cowboys’ Running Scheme

Alfred Morris’ Skill-Set

Alfred Morris is a natural one-cut running back who is great at pressing the edge before he cuts into the seam. He runs with a good forward lean and typically does a good job of driving his feet to pick up extra yards after contact.

To get a feel for the defensive line tendencies, you need time and reps. This is exactly why Morris was so dynamic under Mike Shanahan, and why he suffered in production under Jay Gruden. The Shanahans allowed Morris to set up back-to-back plays like the outside zone stretch (first play) and then pair it with the split zone (second play) below. It was a beauty to watch.

In 2015, Morris was injured for part of the season, and didn’t look like himself during the rest. He was indecisive, hesitating in the backfield, and made poor reads on plays that he’s been running since he entered the NFL.

While these traits didn’t surface on every play, they appeared on enough of them to warrant criticism. Watch this outside zone to the left against Tampa Bay. Morris should have cut outside of Trent Williams, but he hesitated and cut inside for a minimal gain. The red arrow is his chosen path; the green arrow is what path Morris should have taken considering Trent Williams had outside leverage on his defender.

Alfred  Morris Wrong Read

While Morris picked the wrong hole, the foot-chopping hesitation in the backfield is what killed this running play. ZBS running backs are taught to commit to their hole, even when wrong. Morris picks the wrong hole, and then he doesn’t commit to it to fight for extra yards.

As a running back in a zone scheme, you have to find a rhythm and in 2015 this didn’t happen for Morris. Consistently, Alfred Morris and Matt Jones swapped drives or Morris was used for 5-6 straight runs in the first, then didn’t play until the third or fourth quarter. This is more on the coaches than Morris, but it is something to remember as Morris is not a good change-of-pace running back. He’s a 20+ carry back who needs the reps to find that rhythm and set up defenses, since he will never make the elusive cuts other running backs will make.

Who would be the prototypical running back for this scheme? Well, DeMarco Murray was very successful in 2014 rushing for over 1,800 yards, but the best running back for this scheme would be Le’Veon Bell. Watch him execute the Steelers’ “Counter Power” to perfection. Bell does fantastic job of staying light on his feet, staying patient behinds his blockers to set up future running lanes.

His versatility in both schemes is the reason why he is so successful in the Steelers’ offense that features both power and zone concepts. Unfortunately, Morris does not have the same skil-set as Bell. If he did, he probably would have been drafted much earlier than the 173th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Factors Affecting Morris’ Success in Dallas

First, and most important, the Cowboys have a better offensive line according to DVOA rankings. The Redskins had the 21st ranked offensive line in adjusted line yards, while the Cowboys were ranked 6th. This is especially true at center where the Cowboys have Travis Frederick, while the Redskins had Kory Lichtensteiger and Josh LeRibeus who were ProFootballFocus’ worst centers in 2015.

Why is the center so important? The center position in any zone running concepts is typically responsible for reach blocking the nose tackle/defensive tackle after the snap. Having a good center that can stop immediate penetration is extremely important to give the running back time to make the proper reads.

Here is an excellent example from Week 1 of the Redskins season vs the Dolphins with Matt Jones at running back. This is a difficult block, but it has to be made. The initial pressure forced Matt Jones to sprint ahead of his first block and then the terrible block by Derek Carrier on the rightside of the line of scrimmage didn’t help make the play successful either. The ‘Skins also had injuries on the offensive line as Shawn Lauvao (LG) was lost for the season in Week 2.

Second, the Redskins had terrible run blocking tight ends in 2015 as both Niles Paul and Logan Paulsen were injured. Jordan Reed is an incredible receiving tight end, but he is not a good blocker. In this scheme a run blocking tight end is an essential piece to holding the edge rushers, especially while other members of the offensive line are used to pull across the formation in power plays.

Third, Jerry Jones mentioned that Darren McFadden will be the lead back in 2016. While Jones ultimately doesn’t make the decision, this is reason for skepticism and echoes what many Dallas fans believe will happen next season. This is not good news for Morris as he needs to establish rhythm to get his run game going. I must note that McFadden has proven to be a fragile commodity as he has been injured in six of his eight seasons in the the NFL.

Fourth, this will be Morris’ second season with the scheme, so there will be more familiarity with the execution of the plays, even if Dallas’ line is new to him.

Some of these reasons are not up to him, while others he can control. If Morris can get consistent carries and can stop the foot-chopping hesitation in the backfield, I think there is a chance he succeeds on the Cowboys considering their superior offensive line and run blocking tight ends.

Follow Samuel Gold on Twitter: @SamuelRGold.

Samuel Gold

Sam founded NFL Breakdowns after working his way through the journalist farm system and is enjoying life in the big league. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., Sam didn’t choose the Redskins, the Redskins chose him. Out of a love for the game and an insatiable curiosity to determine why his beloved team was underperforming, Sam turned to studying film in NFL Breakdowns.