Redskins Observations: RG3's a go; so is read-option, running game
Robert Griffin III will start Week 1, and the read-option remains a Redskins staple. But with Alfred Morris a year better, expect emphasis on an already stout run game.
ASHBURN, Va. -- Let's get this out of the way: Robert Griffin III is starting Week 1 against Philadelphia. Barring the remote chance he has a setback -- and that would be a shocker given his steady recovery from torn knee ligaments at the end of last season -- he is going to be under center for the Washington Redskins.
That doesn't appear to be an issue at Redskins Park. Oh, sure, Dr. James Andrews will evaluate the quarterback again at the end of this week, after Griffin sits out the preseason finale Thursday at Tampa Bay. But the idea that Griffin would, or should, sit until the bye week a month into the season isn't grounded in reality. Everything about the way this injury has been handled was with an eye to the opening game, and we remain on that path.
"He seems to me to just be getting stronger and stronger," said backup quarterback Kirk Cousins, himself returning to practice Monday from a minor foot sprain. "I anticipate him being ready to go on Monday night [Sept. 9] and putting on an amazing show."
And, don't fool yourself into thinking just because Griffin suffered his share of abuse last season, particularly in the read-option, that the Redskins offense will be drastically different. Because that's not the expectation here, either. Perhaps the percentage of plays the Redskins have Griffin out in space, pitching the ball with burly defenders darting toward his sinewy frame will decrease slightly. But the overall scheme and philosophies remain the same, and the thought is that the unit will be much more potent in 2013, with a second year together running it.
If anything, the Redskins are actually better primed and prepared to utilize the read option this season than they were a year ago. Back then, everyone, except for Griffin who thrived in pistol concepts at Baylor, was figuring it out as they went along. So figuring a team that won its division last season in this fashion to abandon or marginalize it this season is folly. Griffin must get out of bounds and not overextend plays and better protect himself, but the Redskins' offensive identity isn't changing.
The best way to protect Griffin is to hand the ball off. Lest we forget Washington was fifth in the NFL in rushing a year ago. Alfred Morris no longer is a rookie running back and should have another monster season. And the entire offensive line -- whose strength is much greater as a collective, lacking individual brilliance besides left tackle Trent Williams -- returns as well. Running the ball behind Coach Mike Shanahan's proven zone-blocking scheme, and sprinkling in the read-option out on the perimeter, makes a lot of sense. So the read-option isn't going anywhere.
"Last year the zone read was a work in progress," Cousins said, "and somewhat of an experiment, and we were learning on the fly and Robert was sort of teaching everyone how it works most effectively. And now you have a more normal installation of the plays, where we've done it before and we have clips of it to show guys, and it's much more comfortable. That alone should make a big difference.
"It's a very effective play, and even with a guy like myself who, I'm not going to run it 70 yards for a touchdown, it's a great changeup. It keeps defenses honest and forces them to think more than just be able to react. It slows them down. There are a lot of benefits even if you don't have a 4.3 guy behind center, where it can help you win football games. I think you're going to see it, no matter who is in at quarterback. And how much, I guess, will depend."
Without such a fertile run game, this offense wouldn't go. During Shanahan's first two seasons here, they were chucking the ball all over the place with inadequate quarterbacking.
"I remember when we didn't have that run game the first couple of years,” veteran receiver Santana Moss said, "and we had to throw so much and we didn't get enough out of us. Sit back and throw all the time, and everybody is ready for it."
Morris, a sixth-round pick, ran for 1,600 yards, averaged 4.8 yards per carry and scored 13 touchdowns -- the latest in what has been a series of interchangeable Pro Bowl backs for Shanahan. Trying to defend the Shanahan zone running scheme is a chore. Add the read-option and a quarterback as insanely athletic as Griffin, and you realize why Shanahan's son, Kyle, the play caller as offensive coordinator, would lean so heavily on it.
"You've got so many different sets and formations and about four or five people in the backfield and you don't know who is going to get the ball," said Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo, trying to explain the difficulty of facing it, even in practice. "It's a zone-read option with the option on the backside. For a pass rusher or D line, it's very tough. That's why they were top five [in rushing] with a lot of rookies. Now they've got another year under their belt and have a chance to be even better. I'm glad I'm not playing against that myself."
Numerous players commented on how much more comfortable the offensive line is compared to a year ago. The zone scheme is predicated on synchronized lateral movement, born of endless practice. This should be even more sequenced this year, and -- looking at how poor divisional opponents like the Eagles appear to be against the run -- Morris could be a fantasy football god in Week 1.
"You don't really understand the speed and the angles the offensive linemen are taking," Redskins defensive lineman Kedric Golston said. "A lot of teams run variations of the zone, but this makes defensive linemen literally work through the down. The first two steps aren't good enough; you have to work through steps four, five and six. Whereas normally offenses, after step two or three, you've defended the block and you kind of know what's going on. But when they stretch that thing and Alfred is making his cut on the numbers, there's a lot of time in there for someone to misfit something."
And the delicious possibilities this run game and the read-option set up for play-action passing are too good to resist as well. Think of the Houston Texans' offense, at its best, but with a freak-of-nature athlete at quarterback. And put Redskins receiver Pierre Garcon in the role of Andre Johnson. If Garcon stay healthy, a Johnson-esque season (1,500 receiving yards) is within reach.
"In this offense you would love to be Pierre," Moss said. "He's going to be the Andre Johnson to this offense. That's what they brought him here for, and if he keeps playing the way he's playing, which I don't doubt he will stop, he's going to be that guy and he has every opportunity to be that guy. I used to sit back and watch Andre and say, 'How can he be so open?' And now I see it because there is so much you have to cover in this offense, and you can't cover everybody."
Don't expect that to change anytime soon.
From what I'm hearing, there is a good chance Pat White plays the entire fourth preseason game at Tampa Bay. White has been very effective in a limited role, and given his elite athleticism, and the need for developing quarterbacks because of injuries striking other clubs, I'd be pretty surprised if he doesn't make this roster.
Especially with Griffin and Cousins on the mend, and given the limitations of backup Rex Grossman, White's presence would be important. Of course, carrying four quarterbacks is untenable and White doesn't have practice squad eligibility.
Here's the rub: If you cut White he'll be scooped up. If you cut Grossman, an older, system guy who doesn't stand out in any way, it's likely the same as carrying four quarterbacks because it's doubtful he gets signed elsewhere, and his preference would be to be back here with the Shanahans.
There's always the possibility of a trade, given teams having a need, but the Redskins did a fine job cultivating White after he spent years out of football. He is a great fit in this scheme and he's someone who could really benefit them from continuing to develop under Mike Shanahan's eye. As an organization, you hate to give a burgeoning asset away, especially at the most important position in pro sports.
• The players are pretty intrigued by some of the looks defensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been using this preseason. He had three linebackers rushing the passer in a nickel package and displayed a package with six linebackers on the field over the weekend. Usually, the pass rush has come from relying on all-out blitzes, but that might not be the case this season.
They call that linebacker-heavy unit a "swift" package and Orakpo said they were keeping it very vanilla, even when getting after Buffalo with it.
"As you've seen so far, we haven't blitzed at all, and that's something Haslett loves to do," Orakpo said. "But he hasn't had a need for it. We've been getting after it with four guys."
• There could be some continued concern over the overall leg strength of kicker Kai Forbath, but he certainly seems like a major upgrade to the revolving-door of kickers at Redskins Park. He was plenty accurate. While kickoffs didn't always grade out as the team would like -- which can hurt the coverage teams – there are always sacrifices, and finding a trustworthy kicker is a priority around here. Forbath enters his second season in the league in a good spot.
• This secondary could use suspended safety Tanard Jackson. Pass coverage looks like it could be the biggest issue with the team, and if Jackson can find a way to get himself reinstated this season -- which wouldn't shock me -- that could provide a significant boost. The Redskins are young at corner, and vulnerable at safety. That's far from ideal.
The assumption, however, is that the improved pass rush will allow these youngsters in the secondary to develop. "They can play at ease at times if you know you've got a great pass rush up front," Orakpo said.
• Orakpo has impressed the staff with his consistency, and he's been a sight battling star Williams, the star left tackle, in individual drills. This is a contract year for Orakpo and if he can stay healthy -- the biggest issue of his young career -- then I foresee a double-digit sack total.
• Continue to worry about the return game here. The loss of Richard Crawford for the season in Saturday's game is not insignificant. They have been searching for productivity and consistency in this regard seemingly throughout Dan Snyder's tenure as owner. It hasn't worked through free agency (Chad Morton and Antwaan Randle-El) or the draft. But Crawford, a second-year corner, was looking like he could provide a spark there after thriving in a limited role last year.
"He was literally leading the NFL in returns in the small sample size we had last year," said Golston, a special teams ace. "He just had a knack for it and making guys miss. He was making plays, spectacular plays, each and every day. It's definitely a blow."
This team isn't loaded with proven options at punt return, but they do have at least one veteran who would eagerly accept the call and has produced in the past. "If called upon I wouldn't think twice," Moss said.
If the NFC East is as jam-packed as I expect it will be, every little advantage will help, and losing a plus returner is far from ideal.
• Penalties were an issue last season, and still have cropped up this preseason.
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