OWINGS MILLS, Md. — A pair of rookies in Washington has given NFL defenses fits all season long as the Ravens will become the latest team to encounter Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and running back Alfred Morris on Sunday afternoon.
As if their talents alone weren’t challenging enough, the use of the pistol formation and the option attack have made it even more difficult to contain Washington’s top-ranked rushing attack. The alignment involves Griffin lining up in an abbreviated shotgun look — four yards behind the center — with Morris lining up behind him. This allows the quarterback to get a better look at the defensive alignment and often dupes defensive fronts into focusing on motion in the backfield instead of playing assignments and maintaining gap control.
On what do you key to slow the unique offensive scheme? Is it the zone stretch plays or occasional inside handoffs to Morris, who enters Week 14 tied for third in the NFL with 1,106 rushing yards? Is the focus on Griffin’s speed and athleticism that have led to 714 rushing yards and six touchdowns? Or on his impressive passing skills in play-action that have led to the league’s third-best quarterback rating at 104.4?
What’s the most crucial factor?
“Discipline,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. “Discipline, because you must count on the next man. You must because everybody is going to have a certain assignment and if one person falls off his assignment, everything collapses. It’s definitely the understanding that we are all on a chain.”
Facing an offense with so many moving parts and possibilities — including fullback Darrel Young and tight end Logan Paulsen who will occasionally flank Griffin in the pistol — it’s important for each defender to focus less on the movement in the backfield and more on his specific job on a given play. Unlike most passing-challenged quarterbacks who run the option in college, however, Griffin’s rare blend of physical tools makes stopping the novelty offense much more of a headache.
The Ravens can only hope practice squad quarterback Dennis Dixon can provide the type of look needed to prepare the defense for Griffin’s play-making ability.
“Have your eyes on what your responsibility is,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “If it’s a dive, if it’s the quarterback, if it’s the pitch in the option, whatever it is, having your eyes on what you have. You have a responsibility, you have a technique, and you have to perform that thing.”
The Redskins have relied on the running game for most of the season — with Griffin’s legs heavily involved as well — but the return of top wide receiver Pierre Garcon has allowed the Washington passing attack to take off in recent weeks.
In his last three games, Griffin has tossed nine touchdown passes compared to one interception, including back-to-back four-touchdown games against Philadelphia and Dallas. Meanwhile, Garcon — limited all season with a foot injury — has caught 12 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns in his last two games.
Garcon’s return from injury has transformed an ordinary group of wide receivers that includes Santana Moss and Josh Morgan into a dangerous unit Baltimore defensive backs must stay with in coverage despite the temptation of keeping their eyes in the backfield at the Redskins’ rushing attack.
All other factors aside, Washington’s offensive success begins and ends with Griffin, the No. 2 overall pick of April’s draft. A threat to run or pass while rolling out or standing in the pocket, there’s no simple way to stop him as few defenses have been successful in slowing him down despite the Redskins’ underwhelming 6-6 record.
“He’s the perfect quarterback for that [offense],” said McClain, who hasn’t played against an option attack since his days at Syracuse facing Pat White and West Virginia. “He has the arm to get all of the passes done out of that, and he definitely goes through with all the actions. Everybody knows he has the speed, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
Sunday might be the rare instance in which the Ravens’ inconsistent pass rush — which could be without linebacker Terrell Suggs — might be a blessing in disguise with Griffin a threat to leave the pocket at any moment.
Pees’ defense will still try to make Griffin uncomfortable when he drops back, but out-of-control spins and moves in which pass rushers crash inside will defer to proper positioning at the line of scrimmage to collapse the pocket while keeping the rookie quarterback surrounded. Unlike the manner in which teams dealt with athletic quarterback Michael Vick early in his career, however, teams have a greater fear of this rookie quarterback burning them with his throwing arm if they simply allow him to stand tall in the pocket.
A defense can play its assignment, but there’s only so much you can do after that from a schematic standpoint against a rare talent like his.
“You need to still rush the passer,” Pees said. “You can’t go in there thinking this guy is going to scramble. You have to come in with the right leverage, the right spot. He may still get out of it because he is such a great athlete. I can’t coach [against] athleticism — you really can’t.”
If all else breaks down for the Baltimore defense in trying to attack the many layers of Washington’s pistol formation, the Ravens won’t hesitate in simplifying their approach against Griffin and the entire offense.
“We’ve got to hit him,” safety Bernard Pollard said. “Every chance we get. Just hit him, hit whoever has the ball.”