robert-griffin-benoit-story

Redskins Preview: It’s Not Just RG3′s Knee

For a return to the playoffs, the Redskins’ phenom must round out his game

By
Andy Benoit
· More from Andy·

Following an embarrassing Week 9 loss to the Panthers that dropped his team to 3-6, coach Mike Shanahan seemed to be waving a white towel on the Redskins’ 2012 season. “You lose a game like that, now you’re playing to see who obviously is going to be on your football team for years to come,” he told the media. “I’ll get a chance to evaluate players and see where we’re at.”

“We’re not out of it statistically,” Shanahan added. “But now we find out what type of character we’ve got and how guys keep on fighting through the rest of the season.” The rest of the season played out like a fairy tale. Quarterback Robert Griffin III was voted a team captain during the ensuing bye week, and the Redskins reeled off seven straight wins to close out their schedule and capture the NFC East crown.

But the fairy tale turned grim when RG3 shredded his right knee in a 24-14 wild-card loss to the Seahawks. The fallout was unforgiving. The target of relentless criticism for how Griffin’s health had been monitored leading up to the game, and for the shoddy turf conditions at FedEx Field, owner Dan Snyder must have been longing for the days when fans merely griped about his reckless spending in free agency.

While the offseason has seen growing discussion of the team’s controversial nickname, Griffin’s recovery from major reconstructive knee surgery remains the dominant story line. He says he’s ahead of his rehab schedule, and many expect him to start the Sept. 9 season opener on Monday Night Football and have an Adrian Peterson-like bounce-back season.

But even if Griffin returns at full strength, it’s still unknown what the Redskins actually have in him. At first glance he appears to be everything you’d want in someone entrusted to run an offense. But upon closer examination, we know less about him than we do any of the NFL’s other young quarterbacks.

OFFENSE

Here’s what we know about RG3: he’s fast, agile and has a lively arm with a quick, compact release. People respect his character and like his personality. If healthy, he can be be one of the most dynamic threats the league has ever seen.

What we don’t know is whether or not Griffin can consistently operate as a drop-back passer in a traditional NFL offense. If he can’t master downfield reads from the pocket, he’ll never be more than a likable version of Michael Vick, assuming the knee injury hasn’t already affected his athleticism.

Last season the Redskins used play-action on 42% of their pass plays, by far the highest rate in the NFL since Football Outsiders started tracking the stat in 2005. Here’s the thing about play-action: While it’s used to freeze defenses, it’s also used to simplify the offense for the quarterback. After faking the handoff, the QB typically has an either-or decision to make. The read could be to throw to the designed target or run the ball; it could be to throw to the designated target or check-down to another predetermined receiver. Play-action is cut and dried, often with no progressions in between. It can be very effective—but also very limiting. Which is why teams with great quarterbacks use it judiciously, not predominantly.

This isn’t to say Griffin can’t execute a traditional progression-read passing attack. We just don’t know yet. Even when he dropped back without faking a handoff last year, the majority of those reads were either-or, which explains why he tucked the ball and scrambled so often. This was simply good coaching by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who put the rookie in the best position to succeed.

As decent as Kirk Cousins looked filling in for an injured RG3 last season, the offense—if not the franchise—hinges on Griffin’s health.

Shanahan often used Griffin in the Redskins’ ballyhooed pistol set, from which they ran the zone-read option. This drove a lot of their potency in play-action, opening up short slants and hooks because linebackers had to honor Griffin’s crafty fake handoffs. And just like play-action passes, Washington’s zone-read options are controlled, reactionary plays for the young quarterback. We may see less of these called in the coming season, especially since defensive coordinators spent the offseason devising ways to snuff out the scheme. Their rather simple solution will be to hit the quarterback whether he keeps the ball or not, which is legal because he is essentially a running back taking a direct snap. The hits just have to be delivered within the natural timing of a handoff, which won’t be a problem since unblocked edge defenders have an unimpeded path to the mesh point. (Think of hockey defenders playing the man instead of the puck.) We already saw the Ravens start delivering zone-read hits like this with Terrell Suggs in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII.

In June, Kyle Shanahan told reporters that few of the numerous shots Griffin took as a rookie occurred on zone-read plays. When Griffin starts taking zone-read shots this year, Shanahan could become reluctant to use the tactic. And as decent as Kirk Cousins looked filling in for an injured RG3 last season, the offense—if not the franchise—hinges on Griffin’s health.

The Redskins, of course, shouldn’t completely get away from capitalizing on Griffin’s mobility. It’s his greatest strength, and the reason why Mike Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen traded three years’ worth of first-round picks to get him second overall in the 2012 draft. What the Redskins should do is use more rollouts and bootlegs to keep Griffin on the move but naturally closer to the safe haven of a sideline. Doing so would stress defenders in space and use the same zone-running concepts that sprung rookie tailback Alfred Morris for the second most yards in the NFL (1,613) last season.

Another benefit of this exaggerated play-action system is that it can get receivers open through design, rather than relying on their raw talent. And the receiving corps needs this sort of help.

Will the physical Pierre Garçcon still be able to create separation after having offseason labrum surgery and battling a chronic foot injury for the past 10 months?
Will Pierre Garçcon still be able to create separation after having offseason labrum surgery and battling a chronic foot injury for the past 10 months? (Nick Wass/AP)

Pierre Garçon, who has adequate speed and superb strength running after the catch, is one of few wideouts who can consistently create separation. But that’s assuming he’ll be the same player after having offseason labrum surgery and battling a chronic foot injury for the past 10 months. Santana Moss, a shifty veteran entering his 13th season, can also create separation and is the closest thing the Redskins have to a vertical threat. (Aldrick Robinson, entering his third season, is fast but too inconsistent at the top of his routes.) But at 5-10, 200 pounds, Moss isn’t strong enough to provide the blocking required of wideouts in most zone-running base sets. This might be why Josh Morgan, a 6-0, 220-pound possession receiver, is the one who starts opposite Garçon. Moss could face a challenge to be the No. 3 receiver as 2011 third-round pick Leonard Hankerson continues to get comfortable in the offense.

In a zone-based, play-action system the more versatile your tight ends and fullbacks are, the better. The Redskins hope they have a multipronged tight end weapon in third-round rookie Jordan Reed, who may push for playing time right away if Fred Davis can’t regain his form after last October’s Achilles surgery. Another possibility at the position could be third-year pro Niles Paul, a converted wideout who has decent enough mobility to have warranted kick return duties (13 times last year). He’ll push methodical but steady Logan Paulsen for snaps. The Redskins will occasionally align a tight end in the backfield, but they might be better off using fullback Darrel Young to make their running game more multidimensional. If not Young, then pass-catching backup tailbacks Roy Helu, Evan Royster or Chris Thompson could be used alongside Morris in full-house sets.

Up front, the men doing the zone blocking don’t quite have the chemistry or athleticism that, say, Houston’s line has, but at least the group has now played together for two full seasons. Light-footed left tackle Trent Williams is the headliner. Center Will Montgomery is an overachiever who has found his niche in this system. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger is on thin ice, given that Washington drafted Josh LeRibeus in the third round. Right guard Chris Chester is the solid veteran entering his eighth season. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus is the guy who coaches hope won’t crumble in pass protection. If he does, the Redskins will probably try their luck with clumsy-footed ex-Buc Jeremy Trueblood.

DEFENSE

The Redskins have the league’s most difficult defense to study on film, given how much coordinator Jim Haslett mixes things up. He’ll play man coverage out of zone looks; he’ll show an all-out blitz but only rush three; he’ll mix and match coverages within the same play; he’ll even gamble by exposing himself to glaring mismatches if it allows him to be uniquely aggressive somewhere else.

The varied looks help Haslett to compensate for limited resources in pass defense. The hope is that getting linebacker Brian Orakpo back from last September’s season-ending triceps injury will go a long way toward changing this. In his first three seasons as a pro Orakpo had 28.5 sacks and showed increasing diversity in his pass-rush mechanics.

The Redskins are hoping linebacker Brian Orakpo can return healthy and put a hurting on quarterbacks.
The Redskins need linebacker Brian Orakpo to stay healthy in order to put a hurting on quarterbacks. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Without Orakpo, Washington cannot regularly pressure the quarterback with just a four-man rush. Outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan is a solid presence on the edge and in the flats, but he’s an unimaginative pass rusher who’s often incapable of beating right tackles one-on-one. Veteran backup Rob Jackson is a similar type of player, which is why the Redskins signed the energetic Darryl Tapp to compete for backup snaps. (Tapp, who played defensive end in Seattle and Philadelphia, may have a tough adjustment going to a two-point stance.)

It’s not just a lethargic four-man rush that’s hindered the pass defense. Haslett has gone to great lengths over the years to find a serviceable secondary, and it was the Redskins’ greatest weakness last season. They addressed the problem in the draft by selecting cornerback David Amerson in the second round and safety Phillip Thomas in the fourth. Amerson (6-1, 205) is a pure off-coverage defender with decent ball skills; Thomas (6-1, 215) has been described as physical.

If Thomas winds up with a starting job, the Redskins should pray he’ll be alongside a healthy Brandon Meriweather. The former Patriot looked rangy and assertive in his first action as a Redskin last season. Problem was, that action consisted of only two and a half quarters against the Eagles in Week 11 because of knee problems. The other contenders at safety are Reed Doughty, who isn’t great in deep space but can be very effective when unhindered near the line of scrimmage, and sixth-round rookie Bacarri Rambo, whose strength and versatility make for a more enticing option than athletically overmatched incumbents DeJon Gomes and Jordan Pugh.

It’s possible DeAngelo Hall will get reps at safety again this season. The 29-year-old veteran can’t cover most receivers man-to-man at corner anymore, but he’s become a respectable tackler and remains a dangerous route-jumper in open space. He’s sometimes undisciplined in his responsibilities, which is why it’s his starting spot (and not solid veteran Josh Wilson’s) that Amerson could take. It’s also why the Redskins signed so-so outside nickelback E.J. Biggers before bringing Hall back on a one-year non-guaranteed contract worth $1 million (amounting to a significant pay cut). If Hall can keep improving his tackling from the slot (think Charles Woodson in Green Bay), the Redskins could theoretically play more complex nickel packages to combat the surge of two-tight end sets. It’s an option any defensive coordinator, let alone an unconventionally aggressive one like Haslett, would love to have.

Out of their base 3-4, the Redskins possess a fairly stout run defense that ranked fifth in the league by giving up 95.8 yards per game last season. (To be fair, this was largely due to offenses attacking Washington’s 30th ranked secondary, which surrendered 281.9 yards per game.)

Ageless London Fletcher and his under-appreciated sidekick, Perry Riley, have a lot to do with the impressive numbers against the run. Both inside linebackers see the field well, and Fletcher, at 37, still seems to move as well as the 25-year-old Riley. Both are proficient in coverage—not just zone, but also man-to-man against running backs and tight ends. Yes, each will get beat on some tough one-on-one assignments, but that doesn’t outweigh the benefit of Haslett knowing he can use just about any of his schematic wrinkles with these guys on the field.

Tasked with keeping Fletcher and Riley clean to make plays are nosetackle Barry Cofield and ends Stephen Bowen and Jarvis Jenkins. Cofield and Bowen have the strength and veteran craftiness to clog holes and disrupt blocking schemes. Jenkins, a 2011 second-round pick, is a better athlete but still a work in progress because of inconsistency. He made encouraging strides starting in place of Adam Carriker, who blew out his quad last September and still isn’t 100%. High-motored veteran Kedric Golston and fourth-year journeyman Chris Baker can provide depth at all three frontline spots.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Setting a record by splitting the uprights on his first 17 field goals as a pro, rookie Kai Forbath replaced veteran Billy Cundiff last October and missed just one attempt all season. Punter Sav Rocca ranked 29th in the league with a 37.2 net average in 2012, despite opposing return men averaging a mundane 8.2 yards on his boots. The departure of return specialist Brandon Banks and a dearth of speedsters on both sides of the ball leaves the Redskins with limited options in the return game.

BOTTOM LINE

Don’t be surprised if Robert Griffin III experiences a sophomore slump in 2013. He has the makeup to be great, but defenses will be more prepared for his style of play. The rest of Washington’s modestly gifted offense could have trouble making the necessary adjustments. The defense, though well-coached, is not quite equipped to pick up the slack.

Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.

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30 comments
RobertSellers
RobertSellers

"What we don’t know is whether or not Griffin can consistently operate as a drop-back passer in a traditional NFL offense. If he can’t master downfield reads from the pocket, he’ll never be more than a likable version of Michael Vick, assuming the knee injury hasn’t already affected his athleticism." 

An ironic statement because almost all of Griffin's passing yards come from downfield reads from the pocket.  He's not Russell Wilson, an above average passer from the pocket a great passer on a scramble.  He's RGIII, his numbers in the pocket are comparable to Peyton Manning, he has the best accuracy numbers at almost any range in the league and by the way he runs a 4.3 40.

No the only question is, "how healthy?"

GK
GK

If the author cannot get facts correct (Orakpo tore his pectoral muscle, NOT his tricep), I don't put much stock in their analysis. Shame to start off the site with such errors.

rodney.j.thomas81
rodney.j.thomas81

Quick Synopsis of this article:

RG3 is black. Only white quarterbacks can drop back and read defenses. The play action saved him. He went through progressions too quickly, so that makes it seem like he rushes his passes. Defenses haven't figured out Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, so the kid with an equally strong/accurate arm and world class speed is all figured out.

Just as defenses study the Redskins, we will study their defenses for seams as well.

solidbrass79
solidbrass79

As a lifelong Redskins fan I agree with the caveats about Griffin.  He was excellent at what he did.  But he didn't make a lot of long progressions, struggled looking off his man, struggled on third down, when the zone read and play action weren't threats, and struggled with field awareness on his scrambles. Shanahan, of course, is a master of the bootleg game, so that's a good prediction.  Griffin will surely be better this year, but how much?

However, my quibble with the article is that Benoit has less familiarity with the team than someone who has checked in with what John Keim (a beat writer) has to say once a week in the offseason.  Trueblood, for instance, is third string and a bad bet to even make the team.  Tony Pashos is second string.  Bacari Rambo has been running with the ones from the start of minicamp, while Philip Thomas has seen much less time.  

CraigWilliams
CraigWilliams

The man has only played on season. Those questions will be answered over time. This is not instant coffee, its football people, shit takes time.

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

More teams should take greater advantage of play action to freeze the defense.  Washington should not adopt the less successful strategy used by other coaches who lack a Manning, Brees or Brady.  

plorell
plorell

...opponents can stop it consistently. Until then, you can keep your box and put another QB in it.

plorell
plorell

Hey, Andy? Show me the last time Vick had a passer rating over 102.0. Vick's rating was never north of 81.6 during his first 6 years in the league. During that time he also never passed for more than 3000 yards. Griffin did more than that as a rookie. I agree that Griffin needs to become a better progression passer. But that has NOTHING to do with how great he played last year. The Redskins offensive line isn't built (read: is unable) to protect in an orthodox passing offense. You think RG3 took hits last year? He would have been destroyed mimicking Tom Brady. The Skins offense is perfectly suited for RG3 and they should run it until their

ian.martin21
ian.martin21

As soon as the Mike Vick-RGIII comparison was made I stopped reading. It's just maddening to me that people still think this is a correct comparison and it really shows the lack of knowledge and the studying of game tape that this author actually put in to writing an informative NFL preview. 


RGIII put up record breaking PASSING numbers as a Rookie, Mike Vick has had arguably 1 partial successful season of throwing the football. Simply put, the comparison between the two is completely off base (both in terms of statistics and playing style) and shows that people who make this comparison do not watch games and simply believe that all fast black QB's are nothing more than a Mike Vick 2.0. 


Such a shame that this was the first article I read on this site.

ironmonkey78
ironmonkey78

an article on washington and no alfred morris?

EagleGreen
EagleGreen

It's nice to read an objective article on RG3 and the Redskins that's more than just another love fest. I'm so sick of seeing ESPN and every other sports news outlet gush over this kid after one season like he's riding in on a unicorn and curing cancer. It's time to come back down to earth. They won the division title last year in one of the weaker divisions in the NFL. Not exactly a miracle. 

goosedude
goosedude

The REDSKINS Defense will be MUCH improved this year....they will have their pass rush back and have depth on the DL and at LB.....and the most important...they will actually have starting safeties playing....

The loss of Merriweather & Tanard Jackson before the season even began was an issue that even Haslett was not able to address. 

They drafted to their weakness and with Merriweather returning at full strength (and possibly still Jackson)......this will actually be a complete defense.

Just watch......all the young guys got tons of playing time last year so there is depth on the team for a change.......

lost_limey
lost_limey

So, the Redskins need RGIII to be healthy and have no secondary. This is the sort of Strong Taek that vaunts theMMQB.com above all other sports sites that couldn't discover these nuggets for themselves.

drwills78
drwills78

Not sure this writer has looked at RG3's stats or watched any of his games because he is clearly writing this article paying little attemtion to his rookie year. RG3 was lights out last year as a pure passer. One of the best under pressure and one of the best with accuracy and yards per attempt and very little turnovers. Of all the rookies, and keep as a first year starter, rg3 will be the least likely to suffer a sophmore sump.

Thunder7ga
Thunder7ga

If the defense can stay healthy (and of course RG3 too), the Redskins will be a very good team.  Special teams is of some concern that I have not got a good read on yet, but hopefully Forbath will continue to do well (just hope he has been practicing his kick offs to get them DEEPER).

Retrievals1
Retrievals1

Another Redskin hating sports writer. Listen, RG3 will be fine with a full year of the offense under his belt he should be better not worse than last year. Brady and Manning run the offense that defenses have had at least a decade to study and they still can't stop them on most afternoons. What makes the writer and other Skin haters believe that defenses will somehow figure the pistol offense out overnight? I think it's here to stay because it works. Every team using the pistol, run option, style offense went to the playoffs last year. That stat is going to be hard for teams ignore.

TheBeatDontStop
TheBeatDontStop

Lot of inaccurate information and pure hate in this article. The Redskins will be fine and repeat as NFC East Champions. Questioning the heart of RG3 to become a better player is ridiculous he has a lot to prove not to biased sports writers and idiot haters but to his team and himself. In this offensive scheme the offensive line does not need a quote un quote star its a system and they have added depth ..

Keep in mind the Redskins running back aka ALF is very special and very determined he will be better especially since they have added depth in that area , something called a 3rd down back.. Niles Paul the tight end Shanahan said has the potential to be Shannon Sharpe like has a year under his belt in transitioning from a receiver and trust he will be solid and special..

No other team in the NFC East possess as many offensive weapons as the Redskin offense..NONE ..


Your total discount of the Skins defensively is ridiculous, with Orakpo back and adding some rookies at corner and safety will surely improve this team..One of my major concerns is Fletcher having to cover tight ends down field but they have young linebackers that can run the field. Of course what really counts is applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks and you will see that is definitely goin gto be addressed this year.

ajj
ajj

Nice read. I also think that RGIII could be in danger of the sophomore slump, simply because last year his athleticism rocked everyone's world and now the league knows his drill. That said, i'm fairly certain that Shanny realizes this and they will make changes accordingly. I see no reason why RGIII cannot make those drop back passes and mature as a passer but I do believe there will be growing pains. If Forbath can pick up where he left off and maybe put some leg on the KO and someone can step up as a returner, I think that our ST might surprise. Our D is still patchwork and reliant on smoke and mirrors. I hope Rak is healthy and ready to play for a new, big contract because that will make a difference on the front line. Kerrigan needs to step up his game from solid to good and if a rookie DB can surprise, I'll be happy. 

snyper94z281
snyper94z281

Your making us whites look stupid. Stop. Racist puke.

JAEAls
JAEAls

@solidbrass79 you do know he made this preview before camp started. how would he know exactly who was running with who in camp besides the obvious starters?

minstrel
minstrel

That was a pretty poor rebuttal, unfortunately, because it missed the entire point of the "hit the quarterback" idea. While I'm not endorsing the idea, a rebuttal should actually address the point. The point is not that hitting the quarterback will prevent the read-option from gaining yardage. The point is that if the quarterback is drilled every time, it'll be hazardous for his health and teams will either stop running the plays or else risk losing their quarterback to injury under the constant pounding.

Again, I'm not sure that it'll actually play out that way, but that article basically had nothing to do with the concept of the "hit the quarterback" strategy. It was just one screenshot after another showing that the offense (the Redskins or 49ers) kept gaining yardage.

Bolshy
Bolshy

A perfect rebuttal to this article from KC Clyburn, WARNING: Contains Facts

Ilovemesomeme
Ilovemesomeme

@EagleGreen The Eagles...................LOL.  To take a quote from your "great" Donovan McNabb, why don't you keep us Skins fans "outcha mouf, and our families names outcha mouf." 

fifthorkid
fifthorkid

@EagleGreen You mean like they do about Kap, Wilson, and Luck also?? Obvious you are a troll by your screen name. Go back to the philly articles.

Retrievals1
Retrievals1

@ajj They just don't think an athletic black QB can play like Manning and Brady. Obviously RG3 can't be smart enough to play like them, well because, he fast and black. 

solidbrass79
solidbrass79

@JAEAls @solidbrass79 Same way I did: by a quick look at reports from OTAs and mini-camp published in Washington Post, John Keim in the Examiner (who's now on ESPN), and in CSNWashington.  If you're not going to take 15 minutes to look at what the beat reporters tell you, you're not really doing a "Deep Dive."

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