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Opposing player to watch: Redskins running back Chris Thompson

The Cowboys must contain perhaps the league’s best receiving running back on Sunday.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not very often that I will highlight an opposing running back who averages just about seven carries per game and is only on the field for about half of their team’s snaps, but that’s exactly what we will be doing today. There is an argument to be made that Chris Thompson is the best third down/receiving back in the league right now, evidenced by the fact that he leads the league in receiving yards for a running back with 366, and that mark actually puts him at 26th overall in the league in receiving yards.

What’s even more impressive is that Thompson is not doing that on the volume of a guy like Christian McCaffrey, who is second among backs in receiving yards. McCaffrey has put up 329 yards on 44 catches while Thompson has put up his 366 on just 23, averaging an astounding 15.9 YPC in the process. When you consider that the vast majority of Thompson’s receptions are check downs or screens caught within five yards of the line of scrimmage you really start to understand what kind of weapon he has been for the Redskins in 2017. On the year he has receptions of 29, 49, and 74 yards, and even though he will only carry the ball a handful of times per game you can’t lose track of him on draws on passing downs as he had a 61-yard touchdown run earlier in the year against the Rams. In the vast majority of games he only averages about three or four YPC, so he isn’t exactly a significant threat on the ground, but he can hurt you if you sleep on him.

But it’s his ability as a receiver out of the backfield that is unique. He actually leads the team in receiving yards, as well as receiving touchdowns, and is second on the team in receptions. That is very rare to see nearly half way through a season and his ability to take low-risk, easy passes like a screen and turn them into explosive plays is something that can immediately shift a game. Many times this year the Redskins offense has struggled, perhaps finding themselves in a third and long, and they will dial up a simple screen to Thompson, who combines impressive vision and an ability to break and avoid tackles with excellent open-field speed, to get them out of a hole and jumpstart the offense.

In 2016 the Redskins passing game was largely built around Jordan Reed and Jamison Crowder, but with the loss of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon the two have struggled dealing with extra attention from defenses and have only put up 206 and 149 yards respectively. Free agent signing Terrelle Pryor hasn’t established himself and is currently in a time-share with second-year receiver Josh Doctson, so in many ways the Redskins passing game as it stands today is built around Thompson, and Vernon Davis to a lesser extent.

We all remember the touchdown catch and runs that Jeff Heath gave up to C.J. Anderson and Todd Gurley after missing one-on-one open field tackles, and something like that cannot happen on Sunday. The Redskins offense has not been good enough to consistently drive the field in 2017 and the last thing the Cowboys can afford is giving up explosive plays on simple screens and outlet passes thrown within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. Of course the return of Sean Lee and Anthony Hitchens will make a difference, but the entire defense must be on alert when Thompson is in the game because he has a knack for making the first guy miss and then turning on the jets once he has a crease.

Luckily for the Cowboys Thompson isn’t on the field much because he isn’t a traditional threat as a runner and the Redskins are very cognizant of not overusing him, so he will only be on the field for maybe about 35 plays on Sunday. The Redskins also deploy him in relatively predictable ways, there are only so many ways to get a running back the ball as a receiver out of the backfield after all, so it will ultimately come down to execution and awareness on the part of the Cowboys defense.

Step one, they must identify when Thompson is on the field, step two, they must not fall asleep when they look to get him in open space on draws and screens, and step three they must rally to the ball once it’s in his hands.

Do all of that and they should be able to contain the speedy back, and perhaps the entire Redskins offense.

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