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