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NFC East pass rushes will present challenge to Griffin -- and vice versa

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RG3 could face lots of corner blitzes as defenses try to match his speed. (AP)  
RG3 could face lots of corner blitzes as defenses try to match his speed. (AP)  

I had a great 20-minute football talk with Robert Griffin III the other day, and he's simply more impressive every time I talk with him.

His poise, maturity, and vision for the task at hand are right on point. He was announced as the starting quarterback of the Redskins without ever practicing with the veterans, but it's first on his mind to win the respect of his teammates with hard work and eventually production. RG3 understands the issues the NFC east presents, namely great pass pressure.

We talked about a quarterback's life in the pocket and the opportunities outside it. He is very proud of the progress he made in the pocket over his college career and made a point to say he never went into a game predicting how many times he would break contain or simply take off and run. He simply reacts to his situation and plays accordingly.

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I can tell you NFC East defenses are thinking about how much he will attempt to run or create a passing play off the scramble. Keep in mind Griffin ran the ball 528 times in 41 college games and rushed for 33 touchdowns. NFC East defenses are all game-planning a phenomenal athlete who used his world-class speed 13 times a game in college.

The Cowboys, Giants and Eagles have to figure out how to contain that aspect of Griffin's game, and he knows what lies ahead, especially with those division teams, who get after quarterbacks better than any division in football.

The good news for Griffin is the success Michael Vick has had in the division using his feet to win games. As an Eagle, Vick is 8-2 as a starter against division opponents and has rushed 75 times for 425 yards, with six touchdowns and 29 first downs. The bad news for RG3 is he has to play against the Eagles wide-nine defense, and Vick of course did not.

Last year, the Eagles defense struggled early, but it wasn't because quarterbacks were making plays with their feet. Maybe it was the number of drop-back passers they faced or that they see Vick in practice every day, but opposing QBs rushed just 36 times for 97 yards, or 2.2 carries for 6 yards a game. Besides containing quarterbacks, they led an NFC East in sacks in a division that's as good as any in that department, and the numbers back it up.

The Eagles (tied for No. 1, 50 sacks), Giants (tied for third, 48 sacks) and Cowboys (tied for seventh, 42 sacks) combined for 140. They were the best three teams combined from any division -- by at least a dozen. Brandon Weeden of the Browns will face the next-biggest challenge vs. the AFC North, which produced 128 sacks from Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, but Terrell Suggs is gone.

But it doesn't stop there when you look at what Griffin is up against regarding passes knocked down and QB hurries. Again the Eagles surface with the top tandem in this area, with Jason Babin and Trent Cole combining for 70. Dallas got 69 from DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer, and the Giants' Jason Pierre Paul, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tusk collected 72. The back end of NFC East defenses also produced 50 interceptions.

Two of the three division opponents also beefed up their pass rush during the draft. The Eagles added Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Vinny Curry. The Cowboys added Tyronne Crawford and Kyle Wilbur. The Giants, of course, are loaded with pass-rushers as long as they keep Umenyiora.

The numbers seem stacked against RG3, but he is still a gigantic problem because he has the ability to break down a defense with his athletic ability. So I asked a former NFL defensive coordinator to help build a plan to play Griffin using NFC East teams. He was quick to point out the Giants and Eagles don't blitz very much and that may work to their benefit. The Cowboys blitz too much and may have to reduce the pressure calls to keep RG3 in front of the defense.

The plan for RG3 went like this: "First thing don't let him break contain on the bootleg and you do that multiple ways. Occasionally widen the ends [the Eagles already do this] and be very aware when the running back goes away to not close down on the run but play the bootleg. Next, occasionally blitz a corner away from the run threat and bring a player with equal speed to Griffin. This was a very effective tool early on in Michael Vick's career. Third, key blitz the linebackers. If the running back comes your way, fill and stop the run; if the run goes away, scrape outside away from the run and get after the QB. Finally, and the most emphasized point, be patient rushing him when he's in the pocket, don't trigger his feet because the pass rush was so aggressive."

Know his escape lanes and close the door on them. It all sounds good, but those are the kind of answers I heard for Steve Young and Michael Vick. Sometimes they work, and sometimes the QB beats the plan. The one philosophy against Vick as a Falcon that I did revisit was the Tampa Bay plan under Monte Kiffin. It was the glory days of the Tampa-2 defense, and Kiffin had a solid plan that teams will look at to build an RG3 plan.

Kiffin's defense held Vick to a 4-5 record and gave up just one rushing touchdown to Vick in those nine games. They also sacked him in one of nine passing attempts and only let him run for a first down 2.5 times a game. The plan was simple, with an occasional "cat" blitz from a corner and solid execution.

In 2012, RG3 will play nine games against 2011 top 10 sacking defenses, and that does not include the Steelers, who had an off year due to injuries. The good news is most of the great pass-rush teams he will face are in the second half of the season, which gives him and Mike Shanahan time to build up his arsenal of quarterback weapons.

Finally, after sitting down with Robert Griffin for the fourth time since his college season ended, I get the feeling he is more than up for the challenge and he will combat the mighty NFC East four different ways:

1) The Redskins will run the ball well against teams that hold the back-side defender to pull up the bootleg; 2) Griffin will find his second and third reads from the pocket; 3) He will build a strong relationship with tight end Fred Davis as Vick did in Atlanta with Alge Crumpler; 4) He is under the guidance of Mike Shanahan, who figured out how to get Jake Plummer on the edge whenever he needed to and limited his sacks to one in 24 attempts after he was sacked once in every 14 attempts as a Cardinal. And RG3 is a much more elusive athlete than Jake Plummer was in his playing days.

It's a big challenge for RG3 and the Redskins, but I know the young QB is ready, and from what I can gather, NFC East defenses will be, too.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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