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.