Sounds like an adult film, right? It is and it isn’t. What I witnessed from Washington’s passing offense against Denver this weekend was so nasty it will compel viewers take a long shower afterwards. Equally disturbing is that this film possesses a lot of elements of an exploitation flick. I had a difficult time watching an innocent, young talent treated this way. Worst of all, it’s difficult to assess blame and there in lurks the elements of psychological horror that chills the blood.
What we’re witnessing with Robert Griffin is the side of the double-edged sword that can cut the wielder. Last year, Washington took the risk and went all-in with an offensive philosophy that leaned heavily on one exceptional skill set of a single player. This year, Robert Griffin – that individual who could diminish the collective weaknesses of his teammates – can’t do what he used to and his impairment is exploiting the weaknesses of this unit.
The knee injury offers the easiest answer to what’s ailing Griffin and Washington. However, there are more questions that I couldn’t shake when I watch the Denver game. Will Griffin ever regain his 2012 explosiveness? If he does, is this the best thing for his long-term development as an NFL quarterback? Is Washington’s offense stunting Griffin’s development in order to exploit his athleticism? Or, is this what happens when a team takes an aggressive approach to molding the scheme around its talent and that talent disappears? The horror is that there’s really no one to blame and feel satisfied.
Do you blame Griffin for getting hurt? Perhaps you blame Shanahan and Dr. James Andrews for not looking out for their rookie and the future of their team in a playoff game, but considering the culture of the players, the league, the fans, the media, and the coaches, it would be unrealistic and hypocritical.
Do you blame the Shanahans for developing an offense predicated on Griffin’s game-changing speed that has degraded from the genius of simplicity to just plain simplistic thanks to one anterior cruciate ligament? So we’ll laud Washington for maximizing what one player could do for the benefit of the organization last year, then criticize him for not knowing when or if that one player will return to the physical form required to make that offense take flight? Learn the second half of the phrase that starts Go big or . . .
Do you blame a weak offensive line that looked a lot better last year because one false move by a defense could lead to a 60-yard touchdown, putting the rest of the league on amber alert to every movement Griffin made between the snap of the ball and the official’s whistle? Do you blame Pierre Garcon for getting hurt and Washington’s patience with him and Griffin returning to form? Not me. Why would Washington try to revamp a team when it expects its quarterback to return to form at some point? There has to be some level of patience this year to determine if it will happen or if they’ll have to adjust.
I have no solutions to the questions that this performance raises, only sympathy.
The Knee Isn’t Firing on All Cylinders
My analysis begins with something I learned from Thursday night’s Carolina blowout of the Tampa Buccaneers, and it wasn’t on the field; it was an interview the analysts had with Darrelle Revis about his recovery from an ACL tear.
Revis consulted numerous players who had undergone the grueling rehab and returned the field. Most of them said that it was a bumpy ride where the knee would have moments where it would respond as old, but most of the athleticism wasn’t firing on all cylinders. They told Revis to remain patient and work through it. One day, the knee will respond, everything will fall into place, and he’ll feel back to normal.
When I’ve watched Griffin this season, I’ve seen him experiencing these ups and downs with his knee. This read option play against the Broncos illustrates that the initial quickness is back, but explosiveness required to make second and third moves back-to-back-to-back are not.
This is your garden-variety zone read play. You have your linemen engaging in a pair of double teams where one of the players in each double team is supposed to work his way to a linebacker, the receivers run off their coverage, and the H-Back serves as Griffin’s lead blocker if the quarterback keeps the ball.
The play begins as designed. As you can see Denver’s defense is patient. The linebackers and safeties are remaining disciplined to the possibility of Griffin keeping this exchange and the defensive end is maintaining his gap responsibility rather than crashing down the line of scrimmage to attack the running back. This is something Griffin and the Washington offense is seeing more often and it is a contributing factor to the drop in the quarterback’s yards per carry average. If you ask me, it’s not the biggest reason; it’s the knee.
However on this play, the lead blocking could be a lot better. The H-Back doesn’t address the defensive end at all. Perhaps he’s taking an outside angle and expecting Griffin to do the same. Even so, the end is too quick and Griffin is too slow to bounce this outside with the angle the H-Back provides to the end without any resistance. Also note the safety at the left hash watching the play unfold. This is good depth. He’s still accounting for a potential crossing route from right to left so he’s above the receiver, but he’s well enough outside to stop Griffin if the quarterback breaks through the first level to the left flat.
The H-Back works past the end towards the safety, leaving Griffin to beat the defensive end. If the H-Back even gave so much as a shove on the end, perhaps Griffin could have taken the ball outside and still show the speed to get separation. I think the H-Back should have helped here. Even so, based on what I’ve seen thus far I don’t think Griffin wins this foot race to the edge and if he does, the explosion to turn the corner isn’t there. Griffin opts to use his good leg to avoid the defender. He plants this healthy knee into the ground, and spins inside the end to avoid the tackle.
As Griffin spins past the end, the H-Back has a good angle on the safety and it appears the running back is in position to work outside the left tackle Trent Williams to address the linebacker working outside Williams’ position. Once Griffin gets reoriented down hill, there’s enough space in the left flat for a positive gain.
At this point, the blocks should be setting up so Griffin will only have one unblocked man to beat and if it doesn’t happen, he should still pick up enough help from his teammates for a gain of 4-5 yards. The problem is the H-Back, who overruns his angle to the safety.
To compound matters, the H-Back isn’t fast enough to recover as Griffin attempts to bounce this run to the edge. Last year, Griffin had the explosion to drive off that braced knee and get outside No.82 if that H-Back actually gauged the correct angle to seal the safety inside. This year, no chance; there isn’t enough explosiveness to gloss over a poor angle from a teammate.
At this point, Griffin is about explosive as Aaron Rodgers. The Packers quarterback is a fine athlete capable of getting outside the pocket when flushed and he’ll gash a defense as a runner, but the Packers don’t design running plays as heavy part of its play-calling rotation. Understandably, Washington built its 2012 playoff team on the legs of Griffin. It’s also understandable why they didn’t change the offense after Griffin’s injury, hoping that the young quarterback would regain his explosion at some point during the season and the team could ride out the rough spots. It may still happen, but long-term is this what’s best for the team?
To be fair, if Washington did change the offense I have doubts the rest of the surrounding talent is capable of sustaining a high level of production for a pocket passer to thrive with the game’s current offensive concepts.
In its current incarnation, Kurt Cousins can’t run this offense close to the way a healthy Griffin can because he doesn’t break good defensive schemes with pure foot speed. Washington would have to change by necessity. However, the staff is clearly still holding out hope for old Griffin to return to form. This is the danger of designing an offense that leans so hard on one specific skill set of an individual player – especially a young passer who is still learning how to maximize his potential from the pocket.
As you will see below, this Washington offense – and really most offenses – is a delicately balanced series of processes that can go south fast when an integral part breaks. If you look closely at Atlanta’s scheme you’ll discover that the root cause of several ailments for the Falcons offense is Roddy White’s injury. He’s the one-on-one player that runs every style of route and possesses the timing with Matt Ryan to force opponents to single cover one of White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez on every play. He’s the player who makes teams pay in the intermediate range for biting on run fakes. And he’s the receiver who automatically draws the best cover corner even with a healthy Jones around.
When White started the season gimpy, the Falcons could still hit big plays to Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez but there wasn’t enough consistent production down-to-down and that prevented the team from building momentum with play-calling and maintaining an advantage. Washington’s pivotal player is Griffin because of the offense’s reliance on the zone read and all the play action, max protection, and simple route concepts that they were able to build off it due to a defense’s fear of Griffin’s speed.
Now Griffin doesn’t have that same caliber of speed and the team is in limbo, running plays that don’t match Griffin’s current skill or his intellectual-football potential as a passer.
Max Protection-Minimum Results
Here’s a play that would have worked just fine last year with a healthy Griffin, but defenses aren’t buying because they know the quarterback isn’t capable of selling it. Two games from now if the explosion returns, sure. But what if it’s four games, eight games, or never? Right now the play below is obsolete.
This is a diamond formation with two receivers at slot width from the line of scrimmage. These are the only two receivers running routes on this play against a Broncos defense that will drop six into coverage. Already, this doesn’t sound promising.
Griffin begins his drop and his three backs set a perimeter to assist the offensive line. If I didn’t know better, it would appear the coaches are so worried about Griffin’s knee that they’re adding a second layer of protection behind the offensive line to insure the quarterback earns a clean pocket to throw the deep ball without a hit to his legs. I think the coaches are worried more about the offensive line’s difficulty protecting Griffin while he guts through an ACL rehab in record time.
If Washington is going to max protect, shouldn’t they be expecting a heavy pass rush? Is Griffin not reading the safeties’ position or is he not allowed t0 change the play to something better? This is an ugly play that makes Griffin look like he’s a first-year player lacking the intellectual sophistication to handle a pro offense. Again, I don’t think this is true nor is it the intent of the coaching staff. However this isn’t the only max protect-simplistic route play in this game. It’s just a disturbing blow-back of creating a simple offense predicated more on elite athleticism and less on spreading the field to manipulate an offense.
It may appear degrading to a player like Robert Griffin, a prospect known for his intellect, but name a young, technically proficient, healthy receiver in Washington’s lineup and you’ll come up empty. Garcon is the closest thing to player to fit this description, but his wheels aren’t back, either. If anything, Griffin’s injury is revealing just how valuable one player’s game-changing ability can be.
Last year Griffin’s wheels were an element that forced defenses to overreact to even the simplest measures for fear of getting burned, which allowed a two-receiver passing game to work. This year, the wheels lack tread to corner to the open field that’s available above. The Broncos edge defenders and linebackers are confident that if it maintains its position, Griffin is no longer fast enough to win big as a ball carrier. Let him try to squeeze a deep ball into double coverage.
As you can see, both receivers have two defenders on them as Griffin targets the deepest zone.
At least Griffin errs long so there’s no danger of a turnover.
Another unintended consequence of Washington not changing its system and waiting for Griffin to recover his big-play ability is that the quarterback’s legs can’t hide as many of the offensive line’s weaknesses in pass protection.
This is another 30 personnel pistol set with two receivers split at slot width on either side of the formation. Denver has seen this look enough times in the game that by the fourth quarter, they’re using one deep safety and placing 10 defenders within the short and intermediate zones to handle it.
Griffin executes play action with the back as hit two receivers work down field against a secondary dropping into coverage. The linebackers stay in position to address any routes in shallow zone, but read to green dog if this once again is a max protect scheme. The only wrinkle to his play is Joshua Morgan, No.15, reversing field and working to the right flat as a dump-off. However, this is a slow-developing route and it requires the Washington offensive line to provide Griffin the time to check down.
Griffin finishes his drop, looking down field where the intermediate and deep zone contains two receivers matched against four defenders. Meanwhile, H-Back Logan Paulsen is assigned to an edge defender. With a healthy Griffin, it’s a risky but understandable to commit Paulsen to the edge with a running back to chip, but with this version of Griffin who cannot make the pass rush pay with his legs? Uh-uh.
Fortunately Griffin still has enough athleticism to avert disaster, using a straight-arm to slide past the edge rush. Even so, we know he’s not going to run. Denver knows this too. They have three defenders at the second level waiting for Griffin to break the pocket.
What else do they have to do? There are only two receivers on this play! If they green dog, there’s a chance they open a lane to allow Griffin behind them. It’s safer to stand there with their thumbs up their hind parts, keep the quarterback in front of them, and wait for him to indicate pass and send the closes linebacker towards the pocket after that.
Griffin resets his feet and this is the cue for one of the linebackers to green dog. Niles Paul is open in the right flat and he will have a one-on-one match up with a linebacker by the time he makes the catch. However, he needs Griffin to look Paul’s way to make the check-down. Instead, Griffin is pressing – bombs away.
In this case the receiver gets behind the secondary.
Griffin overshot the ball once again. Disrupt a quarterback from his spot in the pocket and he loses accuracy.
Make The Offense Squirm
Earlier in the game, Denver sent pressure at this max protect scheme – a double-corner blitz – and the Broncos linebackers were disciplined and waited for Griffin to attempt to break the pocket. I think teams see that containing Griffin in the pocket, eliminate easy runs for even a now-moderately athletic runner, and force him to pick a secondary apart with his arm and limited choices is the way to go.
This discipline is even more evident with blitz variation where both corners pressure the pocket, but the corner on the side where the quarterback keeper would go temporarily pauses his blitz until the quarterback finishes the read option phase of the exchange.
Once again, only two Washington receivers release on pass routes. Meanwhile, the defensive tackle also drops. However the depth of this drop indicates to me it’s intent is to keep the pocket intact and force Griffin to throw the ball than to cover a receiver.
The corner off the left side pauses his rush long enough to ensure that Griffin is dropping to pass and not opting to run. His teammates in the middle have nothing to do but play security guard patrol for a quarterback breaking the pocket as a runner.
Now that Griffin shows he’s truly dropping to pass, the cornerback resumes his blitz. Griffin is poised to do the right thing conceptually, which is to throw into the blitz and his receiver is open.
Griffin releases the ball with room to spare, but his pass is high.
The receiver – I believe it’s Garcon – attempts a one-handed grab . . .
And makes the play. After this completion, Denver opted not to blitz, force the receivers to face double coverage, watch Griffin and the offensive line squirm. Even when Washington sent more than two receivers down field, Denver decided they’d make Griffin and his receivers prove they could win by throwing the football on a set play.
No max-protection on this play, but it’s still a conservative passing attack with the field compressed more than what we often seen with NFL offenses.
As Griffin executes the read option fake, the Broncos linebackers remain patient, as does the defensive end on that read side. Also note the Broncos safety No.45. He’s spying Griffin the entire play.
As Griffin drops, the edge rusher works around the tight end, a mismatch for the defense that last year’s version of Griffin arguably uses his legs to make the Broncos pay. However, there’s still the safety spy – an added layer of protection for the defense that perhaps a healthy Griffin would not avoid.
Griffin climbs the pocket, doesn’t see an open receiver among the three running routes against six defenders in coverage – yep, still a 2-to-1 defensive advantage in DBs to WRs – and then is forced to slide to his left. Meanwhile, look No.99 near the left hash where Griffin is about to slide. Do you notice who is assigned to block this defensive linemen?
That’s Alfred Morris. A tight end on a player like Shaun Phillips or Von Miller? A running back on a defensive tackle? Two offensive linemen on the right side blocking air and grass? Not a good look on this play.
Griffin may not have the same explosiveness, but he’s still quick enough to slide from the edge rusher and then dip outside the defensive end. Not fast enough to slalom these big defenders without getting touched, but that’s part of the recovery process, if not the great athleticism of defensive linemen in today’s NFL.
Griffin just escapes a sack as he’s flushed to his left and this is where the spy comes into play.
This is where the play could still go alright if Griffin opts to run and make the most of this one-on-one match up with the safety. However, what he does next is a cardinal sin of quarterbacking and potentially an indication that his walk doesn’t match his talk about his confidence level in his knee.
Griffin pulls up and attempts a throw across the field with a defender bearing down. Yes, this sometimes works but when it does there’s a level of anticipation to place the ball at a spot where the receiver is the only one with a chance to work towards the ball. In this case, Griffin delivers the ball to the receiver in a static spot that forces that receiver to wait on the ball – a dangerous play because now the receiver must stand still and time a leap while the defender as the advantage of attacking the pass.
Also note the spin of the ball. There were a few throws where the ball came out funky because Griffin pressed too much to make a big play due to a scheme that emphasizes the speed that hasn’t returned to him yet and sends minimal receivers into maximum coverage.
The safety jumps the target, tips the ball, and ends the play. Washington is fortunate this play didn’t result in a turnover.
What’s happening with Washington’s offense is to be expected when its scheme’s lynchpin is a rare athlete and that athlete has lost that edge. Based on past history, it should return, but I’m not counting on it this year. This raises a broader set of questions: What will Washington do in the offseason?
Will they begin transitioning Griffin’s development to that of a pocket passer? Griffin was my No.2 quarterback in draft class that at the top was among the 3-4 best crops of rookie passers since 1983. Griffin’s intelligence, toughness, fundamental feel for the pocket, and deep accuracy (when not forced to throw into double coverage) are all reasons why I’ve always thought he could develop into a pocket passer with the mobility/accuracy that approached that of Steve Young and Aaron Rodgers. However, Washington has to upgrade its receiving corps and offensive line.
Will Washington keep its current system and wait for Griffin to regain his elite athleticism? If Washington remains patient and Griffin does return to form, they’ll have the luxury of adding talent but not forced to overhaul its offensive system and continue to rely on Griffin’s legs to put defenses on edge. But what if the Broncos’ method of defending Griffin works even when the quarterback’s explosiveness returns? Will Griffin and the coaching staff make the steps necessary to develop more advanced methods of execution for the passing game? They have the collective smarts and potential, but they need the talent.
I have a lot more to write about this game in Part II of this post, including the punishment Griffin is taking – something he’s always done as a player. But I’ll end this post with this final question: Knowing what we do about Griffin’s toughness and desire to play and the Washington organization making a questionable call about his leg in the playoffs last year, would it have been wiser to shut Griffin for the first 10-12 games of this season?
I don’t have an answer.
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