The first time the Ravens didn’t need Lamar Jackson this season, they got a pretty good impersonation from his backup.
In Week 1, early in the fourth quarter, Robert Griffin III entered a blowout-in-progress against the Miami Dolphins. The Ravens had scored on all but two of their drives before Jackson was pulled; a drop-off would have been understandable. Guard Marshal Yanda and wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown had joined Jackson on the bench. Running back Mark Ingram II would be there soon enough, too.
But on a day in which Jackson finished with a perfect passer rating, the Ravens’ offensive machine just kept churning. In the 59-10 win, Griffin finished 6-for-6 for 55 passing yards and a touchdown to tight end Mark Andrews. The Ravens would’ve cracked 60 points had the coaching staff decided not to have Griffin salt the game away 5 yards from Miami’s goal line after a second successful drive.
Griffin got a season-high 23 snaps that day, his first of six appearances this season. He last played in Week 15 against the New York Jets, the Ravens’ most recent blowout win and his fifth game in charge of the offense, if only briefly. But with Jackson and several other starters sitting out the Ravens’ regular-season finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Griffin will get more than just a cameo Sunday. The offense will be his to lead.
“It’s a great opportunity for anybody that’s playing in the game,” coach John Harbaugh said at his weekly news conference Monday. “So for all the guys — and certainly, in his case — it’s a big deal. He’s played already this year, which says a lot. Backup quarterbacks don’t always play unless there’s an injury, but he’s still played quite a bit, relatively speaking, and done a good job. So yes, it will be a great opportunity for him. I fully expect him to make the most of it and play a very good football game.”
Griffin has already had a very solid 2019: 12-for-17 for 129 passing yards, a touchdown and an interception — good for a 87.6 passer rating — and 12 carries for 20 yards. (Take away his six kneel-downs, and he has six carries for 26 yards.) He is 1-for-4 over his past two games, and an ineffective showing against the Jets has led some Ravens fans to call for rookie third-string quarterback Trace McSorley to play against Pittsburgh, a possibility Harbaugh did not rule out.
Griffin, of course, is not Jackson, but he gives the Ravens their best chance to deflate the Steelers’ playoff hopes. Ahead of his first start in three years, he’ll have a full week to prepare for Pittsburgh’s ferocious defense, which held the Ravens to 277 yards in Week 5. For as low as the game’s stakes are in Baltimore, there is intrigue in how coordinator Greg Roman will adapt his offense to fit Griffin’s strengths and weaknesses.
After a series of knee surgeries, the 29-year-old does not have Jackson’s open-field ability. But he did earn NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2012 running similar zone-read and play-action concepts for the Washington Redskins.
Griffin “has a great skill set,” Harbaugh said. “Some things similar to Lamar; some things different, though. They’re not exactly the same by any stretch. So we will definitely try to tailor it toward what he does really well, does best, like we always do with Lamar. I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out. It’s still Monday, so we have a lot of work to do on that.”
Like Jackson, Griffin has played almost exclusively out of the pistol formation this season. His performance against the Dolphins — his first appearance in a preseason or regular-season game since Week 14 last year — hinted at his comfort in his first year with Roman’s innovative system.
Griffin’s first attempt was completed for just 11 yards, but it came against a defense that hadn’t yet pulled its starters. His processing was impressive. At the snap of the ball, Griffin first looked to Andrews, who was sprinting into the flat after a presnap motion. The tight end wasn’t open, so he moved on to wide receiver Seth Roberts, running a slant in the same half of the field.
He wasn’t open, either, so Griffin pivoted to his third option, tight end Nick Boyle. Griffin’s eyes had pulled the nearest linebacker away from Boyle, and his throw led Boyle upfield for an easy first down.
On the drive’s final play, Griffin held up in the pocket long enough for Andrews to clear the middle of a congested end zone. As defensive lineman Christian Wilkins bore down on him, Griffin stood and delivered an in-stride throw to Andrews for a 3-yard score.
As with Jackson, Griffin’s top targets Sunday figure to be the team’s tight ends. While Andrews might be limited somewhat after rolling his ankle in the Week 16 win over the Cleveland Browns, Boyle has caught all four of his passes from Griffin this season. Hayden Hurst has been targeted twice, and Griffin’s lone completion to him, in Week 1, demonstrated his trust.
On the Ravens’ second drive against the Dolphins, Hurst ran a 10-yard out route. As soon as he got into his break, Griffin wound up and delivered a strike. He didn’t need to see Hurst open to know that he’d get there.
Not all of Griffin’s passes have been perfect. His longest completion this season was a 39-yard bomb to rookie wide receiver Miles Boykin against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, but the play benefited from poor cornerback play. Boykin had almost no chance of beating Troy Hill to a spot when the throw left Griffin’s hand, but Hill played the ball like he expected it to be an easy interception. That left Boykin free to high-point the ball and make an impressive catch along the sideline.
In Week 10, Griffin had wide receiver Willie Snead IV open on a go route downfield, and his ball was on target. But it didn’t have enough zip on it. Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III read the play from his center-field position and came over just in time to pick the pass off.
Nothing will come easily Sunday against Pittsburgh. According to Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, the Steelers have the NFL’s third-best run defense and fifth-best pass defense. In Week 5, they held Jackson to 70 yards rushing and 5 yards per carry. Through the air, he finished 19-for-28 for 161 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. So far, it’s the worst performance of a Most Valuable Player-caliber season.
Unlike Pittsburgh’s Devlin Hodges, Griffin doesn’t have to win to save the Ravens’ season. But he can show what he’s capable of. He’s mostly impressed in mop-up duty against overmatched teams. Now comes his toughest test yet — one he can fully prepare for.
“I’m healthy and I’ve learned a lot. To be in the position I’ve been in the past two years, you either be upset about it and don’t work or you’re upset about it and you work,” he said Tuesday. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have. You can always learn from the young guys.”
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
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