After fumbling five times last season, Matt Jones has made holding onto the football a major priority as the team's lead running back.
Running back Matt Jones admitted Wednesday, after completing the Redskins' fifth day of OTAs, that he goes to sleep thinking about holding a football and wakes up thinking about holding a football.
"I am out here thinking about that ball each and every day, like I cherish the ball, something I love," Jones said.
Such is the new lifestyle for Jones, who fumbled five times last season as a rookie and had to answer numerous and consistent questions about his ball security after each mishap. Now that the team has pegged him as the starting running back for 2016, he knew that specific part of his game needed to be improved.
Because of this, Jones has made ball security a priority throughout the entire offseason. Last year he used to hold it, as he said, like "Tiki [Barber]," letting it hang loose from his body. Now, he's made sure all pressure points on the ball are covered and tight.
"I actually changed everything: the grip, the positioning, how tight I hold it," Jones said. "I've been working on my curls in the weight room to get that right. Really everything I've worked on has been different."
One of the tools he and running backs coach Randy Jordan have used is a different kind of football called the “High and Tight,” which promotes holding the football as its name suggests. The ball, used by many teams, is a little smaller and has a whistle that goes off once all necessary pressure points are properly pressed against his arm and body. Now, if Jordan wants to make sure Jones is holding the ball correctly, he just has to use his ears.
Ideally, the ball is secured in between the elbow and the forearm with the tip of the ball wrapped and facing upwards. It's something Jones has been using for a while in practices dating back to the first weeks of offseason workouts.
"We are doing a lot of stuff like how I hold the ball, different points where I can hold it," Jones said. "Now, no one can take it and I feel very confident. Opposed to last season, I can definitely say that now. I just felt like I was holding the ball wrong, all loose. But now I am buckling down on it."
"I mean he better be able to carry it now – we're not tackling him [laughing]," head coach Jay Gruden said. "If he's putting the ball down now, we have problems. But it's been talked about and it's been worked on…we've got all kinds of things that help him out, mainly focus on the ball not just when he's in contact or in the line of scrimmage, but outside of contact where he had a lot of trouble last year. So, we're working with him, and he's a diligent guy. He's working hard at it. He'll get it corrected; he better."
Being the lead back has also meant improvement in other deficient areas. Jones struggled with being explosive right out of the handoff and would often wait in the backfield to find a hole to open up before turning on the jets. In the last month he's made more of an effort to attack holes earlier, cut back quicker and square his body up in motion.
"That's something that we definitely work on, that's what I call leveling off, getting downhill faster and not delaying runs by looking for holes," Jones said. "I just get a feeling, running full speed. This year I want to get my shoulders square to make it harder for defenders to tackle me, last year I feel I wasn't doing that and it was easier to tackle me."
Consistency is also something Jones feels he can improve. While the amount of his carries remained relatively even last season, his productivity dipped and jumped over the course of 16 games, and Jones admitted he would get down on himself.
But as he scans the offense this year, particularly the numerous receiving threats at his quarterback's disposal, his opportunities to attack defenses will only grow he believes.
"I feel like I am in a great position to be around this offense because we have a lot of talent at receiver that it is going to open up the run," Jones said. "I mean there's no way [the defense] can match both at the same time, so I feel like if we continue to be what we were last year and improve more then I feel like we will be an unstoppable offense."