Washington Redskins dynamic rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III orchestrates a fast-break, hybrid offense in a manner akin to a skilled maestro.
Griffin has thrived in the pistol formation, an imaginative offense that is a cross between the shotgun and single-back formations first launched at the University of Nevada and brought to prominence when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was on campus. Griffin has been granted significant freedom, operating read-option schemes to create confusion, embarrass defenders and pile up touchdowns through the air and on the ground..
The Ravens' latest challenge is trying to defend Griffin and the Redskins on Sunday at FedEx Field. For the Ravens, the Redskins' offense could pose a problem for a defensive unit ranked 23rd in the NFL against the run and allowing 125.8 rushing yards per contest.
"Griffin definitely is the perfect quarterback for that offense," Ravens middle linebacker Jameel McClain said. "He has the arm. He definitely has the speed. What's unique about it is you don't see it in the NFL. It's more something you see in college.
"It's something that everyone thought couldn't be done in the NFL, and they're proving they can do it and be more than competitive with that system. It's going to be a unique challenge for us."
Multi-dimensional with a rocket arm and rare speed, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor is having a stellar season with 2,660 yards, 17 touchdowns and just four interceptions for a 104.4 quarterback rating. Griffin has contributed 714 rushing yards and six touchdowns for the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense.
Griffin lines up three yards closer to the center than he would in a traditional shotgun with rookie running back Alfred Morris aligned three yards directly behind him instead of next to him in the Redskins' usual base formation.
"It's fun," Griffin said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "It can keep a defense on its toes, and it's all about creating mismatches, creating confusion, and that's what it helps us do. We run our entire offense out of that pistol look, so it's really just our offense."
Being so close to the line of scrimmage, Griffin is able to read defenses on the fly while still far enough back to provide extra time and vision to see the entire field.
Because of the nearly constant backfield motion, Griffin's ability to the Redskins have effectively decreased defenses' aggressiveness.
"The Redskins paralyze the second level of the defense with backfield action and eliminate the pass rush with a diverse offense," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "Griffin hits a lot of breaking routes because second-level defenders are stuck in cement. It's hard not to react with so much going on in the backfield. He's not asked to do anywhere near what Andrew Luck is doing, but he's been phenomenal and played exceptionally well.
"If I'm the Ravens, I tell my second-level players not to react to anything in the backfield and wait to see where the ball goes and have the defensive ends and linebackers get upfield and stop. Basically, Griffin is playing pitch-and-catch. It's been too easy because human nature is guys want to make plays."
Complicating the assignment for the Ravens is the Redskins also feature traditional zone-run elements with Morris rushing for 1,106 yards and 13 touchdowns and averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The sixth-round draft pick from Florida Atlantic has bulldozed linebackers with his 5-foot-9, 218-pound frame lending a smash-mouth aspect to the misdirection looks.
"I respect him, I really do," strong safety Bernard Pollard said. "The guy's a very hard runner."
The watchwords for the Ravens this week have been maintaining discipline and not allowing Griffin to escape the pocket and throw on the run.
It's a similar approach the Ravens tried to apply to Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick in a September loss.
"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," defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. "You have a responsibility, you have a technique, and you have to perform that thing. This is not one of those that you can spin out of a block.
"You have to be very disciplined, and the biggest thing is know your responsiblity and have your eyes on it. The biggest thing with this guy, which we didn't do well against Vick, is he starts moving around back there and everybody is watching him instead of watching or playing the zone you need to be in. We did a terrible job of that. Hopefully, we'll do a lot better this time around."
Hardly anyone in the NFL has been bulletproof against the pistol offense. The Redskins rank seventh in total offense, averaging 383.7 yards per game with 167.2 per contest on the ground. And they're eighth in scoring, averaging 26 points.
"Everybody is going to have a certain assignment," McClain said, "If one person falls off of his assignment, everything collapses. It's definitely the understanding that we're all on a chain."
Griffin excels at using play-action, ranking first in the NFL in those situations. He has used play-action on 38 percent of his 325 throws, completing 71 percent of them and averaging over 17 yards per completion, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You have to be aggressive and not cautious,” Pees said. “You need to still rush the passer. You can’t go in there thinking this guy is going 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. If you do that, then you are always going to be tentative, and you’re always going to be cautious, and you’re always going to be guarded, and you’re never going to get there.
“So, we’re going to try to tee it up like we always do, but also not be crazy. Not be cautious, not be afraid to be aggressive, but at the same time you just can’t go in there and, ‘OK, I’m going to spin on this guy and know that he is going to go outside.’ There are just certain things like that where you have to use common sense.”
The toughest wrinkle to deal with, though, is how the Redskins mask their intentions with multiple choices at Griffin's fingertips.
"It's a unique twist, and he's got a unique skill set," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You try to build your offense around your players and what they're capable of doing. They've done a really nice job of that with their quarterback, with RGIII.
"Obviously, he's smart, and he's got a lot of athletic ability, but he also had a lot of quarterback awareness. They run a basic, fundamentally sound NFL offense with some added juice with the option game, the dive option, the option pass stuff and all the things he can do with that."
At 6-foot-2, 217 pounds, Griffin possesses the arm strength, the athleticism with 4.41 speed in the 40-yard dash and intelligence as a former 4.0 student recruited by Stanford to run the pistol offense.
"He can do everything," cornerback Corey Graham said. "He's a fast guy, he can turn the edge, turn the corner on a lot of guys. He can throw the ball very good and is accurate with his passes. When you've got a guy that can do pretty much everything, it's a tough challenge."
Although Griffin obviously has the capability to confound defenses, defensive end Pernell McPhee has a rather simplistic plan for what to do about the electrifying rookie.
"We got to hit him," McPhee said. "Hit him, hit him, hit him, and make him break. He's good, but we put our pants on the same way he does and we get paid, too."
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