Richard Sherman is integral to the Seahawks' plan for stopping RGIII. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Very few teams have figured out the secret to defending Washington's offense, even with Robert Griffin III running at less than full speed late in the season. Seattle may have as good a chance as anyone this weekend, when the Seahawks visit the Redskins on Wild-Card Weekend.
Mike Shanahan's attack is a unique blend of run and pass -- his zone-blocking scheme on the ground has been replicated but never duplicated. Week 17 served as a reminder of how lethal the Redskins can be on the ground, as Alfred Morris shredded Dallas.
But Seattle has twice faced an offense that runs a variation of Washington's offense ... and has gone 2-0 in those games.
The Seahawks held Cam Newton and the Panthers to 190 total yards and 12 points in a Week 5 victory, then they stuffed Colin Kaepernick and San Francisco, 42-13 in Week 16 (Seattle lost to the 49ers, 13-6, before the Kaepernick-for-Alex Smith switch at QB).
What is Seattle's trick? Well, in addition to being able to see the pistol, zone-read look from its own offense each day in practice, the Seahawks have a unique blend of defensive talent that makes them a tough matchup for any offense -- likely including Washington's.
Does that mean the Redskins are doomed this weekend? Definitely not. But they might have their hands full getting their playmakers into space.
Let's look at why in this week's first playoff Break It Down:
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We'll start with what the Redskins do well, though fully diagnosing Robert Griffin III's skill set in a couple hundred words is an impossible task. A little easier challenge is explaining Morris' impact.
In just one NFL season, Morris has become a premier running back and, as the Cowboys witnessed last Sunday night, he is lethal when able to find a cutback lane. Here, from Washington's win over Baltimore, you can get an idea of just how capable Morris is at finding those backside openings -- and at what RGIII's presence does to defenses.
On the play pictured below, Griffin ran the zone-read with Morris out of a pistol formation, then let his running back take the ball.
Baltimore's linebackers sat in pretty good shape as Griffin and Morris came together in the backfield, but two split-second moves doomed the Ravens.
First off, they all cheated toward Griffin, a natural reaction post-snap. But they compounded that hesitation by then crashing toward Morris after the handoff. In the photo above, Albert McClellan (red arrow) has started diving toward Morris' inside route, which then allows him to be sealed off by a downfield blocker.
Not only does Morris have a huge cutback lane as a result of Baltimore's over-aggressiveness but, had Griffin pulled the ball for a play-action pass, he would have had an open man across the middle and a second releasing in the flat.
Griffin took advantage of those aerial options during Washington's Thanksgiving Day rout of Dallas, capitalizing on open short routes over the middle ...
... then also victimizing Dallas deep when the Washington receivers were able to get behind their initial coverage.
So, what makes Seattle better equipped to stop this attack than, say, Baltimore or Dallas?
Believe it or not, the Seahawks' chances start outside with their cornerbacks. Pete Carroll's defense has some big bodies in the middle, adept at stopping the run (namely, Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane). A lot of what Carroll does defensively, though, is based off having a pair of big, aggressive corners in Brandon Browner (back this week from suspension) and Richard Sherman.
Browner did not play in Seattle's last game against San Francisco, but we're still able to get an idea of what the Seahawks will try to do against the Redskins' offense.
On this next play we'll look at, Kaepernick runs a very solid play-action fake to Frank Gore out of the pistol, then rolls right. Two of Seattle's linebackers crash extremely hard toward Gore, which should have left Kaepernick with his choice of run-pass options.
That's Sherman circled above, locked in one-on-one coverage with Michael Crabtree. The Seahawks did not even bluff safety help toward Crabtree; Sherman is on an island.
This is how Seattle plays, quite frequently -- both Sherman and Browner are entrusted to play tight bump-and-run man defense on top receiving targets. Their ability to handle those roles frees up Seattle's linebackers and safeties to play more aggressively closer to the line.
Because of that, on the play pictured above, the linebackers don't backtrack after flying toward Gore and instead stay with Gore and Delanie Walker as they release in receiving patterns.
Byron Maxwell and Earl Thomas, meanwhile, playing deep in safety positions, close down on Garrett Celek's crossing pattern. And Kam Chancellor stays home to guard against Kaepernick's rollout.
Despite five defenders basically running out of position because of the play-action, the Seahawks are able to cover all their bases simply by allowing Sherman to close off an entire sideline.
That coverage allows the Seahawks to charge hard toward the running back, even on play-action fakes. They did so against Kaepernick and San Francisco even with Jeremy Lane playing in place of Browner in Week 16.
Here, Sherman (No. 25) is playing over the slot, then drops back deep to help in coverage. Seattle takes out Gore with a linebacker off the play-fake, but drops the rest of its linebacking corps in a zone with Lane one-on-one against Moss wide left.
The resulting openings off that play-fake are small -- if Kaepernick executed his pass perfectly, he may have found some gaps, but in general, Seattle is in solid position.
Washington is going to have a chance to make plays Sunday -- the Panthers missed several opportunities at big gainers during their loss to the Seahawks, and a crisper offense might have had more success.
In general, though, this is what the Redskins will see this weekend. The Seahawks will repeatedly use Sherman and Browner to shut down opposite sides of the field, then rely on their linebackers and safeties to eliminate both Morris and the Redskins' crossing/post routes.
Can Griffin find those small windows? If he can't, Washington will have a hard time moving the football.