So I am fairly smitten with this option offense Washington is running, called by offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and executed with precocious zeal by 22-year-old franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III. A big test comes Sunday at home against Baltimore's attacking scheme, and the Ravens have had fun cramming for it in practice and the classroom this week.
All that's at stake is the playoff bye week for Baltimore and the playoffs themselves for the Redskins. This is a great rivalry game, with the two cities 35 minutes apart (much longer in Beltway rush-hour traffic). And the option offense that began with a 15-play appetizer in Washington's season opener now is a majority of what Griffin and his teammates do every week.
Whether Baltimore learned enough to shut off the aggression switch and be patient -- which the Giants didn't do well Monday on some crucial plays -- will determine much about who wins this game. On one third-down call Monday night, Griffin lined up in the Pistol (four yards behind center instead of the seven-yard Shotgun distance) and play-actioned a dive handoff to Alfred Morris. The Giants' right end on the play, Jason Pierre-Paul, made a fatal error, falling for the play action and lunging to stop Morris. But Morris didn't have the ball, and Pierre-Paul, who should have had contain on the outside of the play, left a wide-open hole for Griffin to gallop through. Gain of 46.
On other plays, Griffin will have a tight end or receiver near him, and he can fake or hand to Morris or fullback Darrel Young, or he can take off around end with a pitchman like Josh Morgan alongside. If the defensive end or outside linebacker attacks Griffin, Griffin can pitch or hand off to the running back. If the contain man attacks someone else (as Pierre-Paul did), then Griffin can attack the perimeter and make his choice of run or pitch when he gets there.
"It feels like you're watching Air Force football,'' Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain told me after practice Thursday. "I played against this kind of offense in college, against West Virginia. The biggest problem you face is the misdirection. This is the time when you really mean that all 11 players on the defense have to stick to their assignments.''
Griffin lined up in the Pistol about 60 percent of the snaps Monday night against the Giants, and New York played some elements of it well. But what's so impressive about the offense is that the cat-quickness of a guy like Pierre-Paul is neutered when he has to be disciplined and stay with his assignment rather than chase the quarterback like he'd do normally.
"Against this offense,'' said McClain, "my job is my first read, and I hope that's how all my teammates see it too. It's impossible to ask any defensive player to play the dive, play the quarterback and play the pitch man. You've got to choose, and you've got to be disciplined when you make that choice.''
Watching Griffin Monday night, I was impressed with his ability to hide the ball in play-action. That's such a big part of this scheme. If you have four men diving to try to stop Morris because of the respect a defense has to have for the 1,100-yard rookie, that means there are seven defenders left to cover receivers, cover the potential pitch man and cover Griffin.
On defense, the chess game has to be just like McClain says. If you're assigned the dive play, don't be fooled by play-action; you can't turn away from the back unless you see for sure he doesn't have the ball. If you're assigned the contain side so Griffin can't go outside, you can't be fooled by play-action. And so forth. I bet, as a group, the Baltimore defense watches more tape this week than in any other week this year. Still, it might not be enough.
Not much newsworthy or unexpected about the Broncos' 26-13 victory in Oakland, making the Broncos 10-3 and the Raiders 3-10. I read the hand-wringing and ripping of the no-progress Raiders on Twitter last night and this morning, but come now: What did you expect?
What did you expect from a team that lost four of its last five in 2011, cleaned house on the coaching side, couldn't spend any real money in free agency because of the salary-cap jail Al Davis left the franchise in, and hired a GM (Reggie McKenzie) who philosophically believed in building his roster in a different way than Davis did? Except the backfield, receivers, defensive tackle and maybe quarterback, the roster needs a massive upgrade to be NFL-competitive -- I'd start with cornerback -- and that's not going to happen in a short period when you're as cap-strapped as this team has been.
Jonathan Martin, left tackle, Miami (No. 71). With franchise tackle Jake Long gone for the year with a torn triceps suffered Sunday against New England, it falls to second-round rookie Martin, in his return to the Bay Area after playing in college at Stanford, to make the most challenging start of his young career -- he'll try to stop San Francisco speed-rusher Aldon Smith from ruining Ryan Tannehill's Sunday at Candlestick Park. Martin slipped to the second round last April because some teams didn't think he could handle speed rushers like Smith, who has 12 sacks in the last five games. I'll be shocked if offensive coordinator Mike Sherman doesn't chip Smith with a back or tight end on virtually every passing down this week to help Martin.
1. The end of the Urlacher Era? Brian Urlacher's out with a hamstring injury this week, and it's unknown if he'll return this year. He is 34. He's been beat to heck all season and not been the great Urlacher by any means. He's in the last year of a contract paying him $7.5 million. GM Phil Emery has to decide whether an injury-riddled player is worth good money in a flat-cap year. Emery's not an emotional guy. The end could be near. For now, Northwestern's finest, Nick Roach, takes over the coveted Urlacher role in the D.
2. Ben's back. I hope the Steelers put a suit of armor on Ben Roethlisberger, because the dislocated first rib injury will be just 27 days old when he faces the Chargers at Heinz Field Sunday in something close to a must-win game for the Steelers.
3. Brady's back too.Brady Quinn: Medicine Man. For a week, he healed the wounded Chiefs. Now he returns to the scene of his not-so-prime, Cleveland, to try to duplicate the best game of his pro career (19-of-23), which will be much tougher against the reborn Cleveland D.
4. Clarity in the AFC playoff race, or not. Three teams for two spots: 8-4 Indy and two 7-5 teams, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. All are favored this weekend. All play at home. Can't see Tennessee beating the Colts, or San Diego beating the Steelers. But the Dallas passing offense will test the Bengal secondary. The Cincinnati pass-rush should be able to beat up Tony Romo enough to win. But a loss by any of the three teams is a huge setback, even for the leading Colts -- because Indy faces Houston twice in the last three weeks of the season.
5. The last chance for the Saints to dream of playing the Super Bowl at home. The 5-7 Saints have to run the table in the last quarter of the regular season, and the toughest game of the four left is Sunday, late, against the which-Giants-team-will-show-up-this-week Giants. I like the Giants, but I don't love 'em. How can you?
6. Clarity in the NFC playoff race, or definitely not. Neatest NFC angle this week is Seattle could move ahead of Chicago into the fifth seed with a win over Arizona (and who doesn't beat Arizona) coupled with an Urlacher-less Bears' loss to Adrian Peterson in the Metrodome. And look who's coming up on the outside: The Rams, with a win at Buffalo, would be 6-6-1.
7. Poor, poor Ken Whisenhunt. He has to be wondering what a guy has to do to get competent quarterback play. At Seattle Sunday, the Cards turn back to John Skelton because Ryan Lindley played worse than Spergon Wynn in his trial.
8. Sanchezelroybow. The Jets quarterback derby tops the list of Things America Cares Nothing About, followed by My Mother The Car reruns.
9. The Saints' decision. Smoke signals out of the Saints' bounty appeal to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue point to a decision in a matter of days, not weeks. A Saints' loss Sunday would mean the players in question, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, might be smart to take them now if Tagliabue reinforces any part of the bans.
10. Greg Hardy backing up his bravado. What, you don't know who Greg Hardy is? You're not alone. He's a defensive end for the Panthers. Said this week Carolina is better than Atlanta. Carolina is 3-9. Atlanta is 11-1. Atlanta beat Carolina when they met earlier in this season. Atlanta beat Carolina twice last season. Aside from the fact that Hardy is out of his mind, it's an interesting belief he has there.