Carolina Panthers v Washington Redskins: Alfred Morris will decide this game

Alfred Morris

The Carolina Panthers against the Washington Redskins, is being hyped as a battle between strong-armed and fleet-footed quarterbacks Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III.

But the real key player on Sunday will be Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris. The unheralded sixth-round pick from little-known Florida Atlantic has thrived in head coach Mike Shanahan's zone-based running scheme.

Morris is currently third in the NFL with 717 yards on the ground. The stout and quick-thinking runner certainly poses a major threat to a Carolina run defense that ranks 20th in the league.

The Panthers are surrendering 114.4 yards per game. That's hardly ideal preparation for facing Morris, who averages 4.7 yards a rush.

What's helped make Morris such a resounding success is the same zone scheme Shanahan used to produce a litany of 1,000-yard runners with the Denver Broncos. Shanahan helped turn 1995 sixth-rounder Terrell Davis into one of the all-time greats.

He also coaxed fine production from the likes of Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns and Clinton Portis. Morris looks set to be Shanahan's latest star find and much of that is due to the system.

In particular, be sure to look out for how effectively the Redskins use the zone-stretch play. Usually run to the left side, the Redskins have the left tackle, guard and a third blocker, either a tight end or fullback, shift to the outside in unison.

Behind the run, the center and right guard then move out into the middle and overmatch linebackers and defensive backs in space. This splits the defensive front and creates a huge cutback lane for the runner to exploit.

That's why an ideal Shanahan runner is often described as a "one cut back." Morris excels at quickly identifying the gap and executing that one sharp cut.

This stretch play is devastating for 4-3 defenses, like the one the Panthers run. So expect Morris to break free for more than one long gain on Sunday.

The Redskins will certainly need to Morris to control the clock. Their last-ranked pass defense won't be any match for Newton's connection with star veteran wide receiver Steve Smith.

With Carolina certain to focus their efforts on getting to Griffin, a strong performance from Morris will be enough to carry the 3-5 Redskins to a vital win.

image: © Keith Allison