On the Buccaneers, Griffin running and winning with who you’ve got

September 26, 2012

The Redskins have to figure out how to beat Tampa Bay with the players they have, cornerback DeAngelo Hall included.

It’s Wednesday and we’ve barely even mentioned the Bucs, whom the Redskins play in Sunday’s 4:25 time slot. We could get into the Xs and Os, as in who’s going to cover Vincent Jackson and how, or will the defense be able to rattle Josh Freeman? Tampa Bay has an odd statistical profile — best rushing defense in the NFL (47.3 yards per game), worst offense (243.7 yards per game).

But let’s be more blunt. Simply, this is must-win territory.

It’s always dramatic to bust that term out in September. At 1-2, the Redskins are a game behind their division opponents. They could be in first (tied with Sunday night’s Eagles/Giants winner) in two weeks.

But when you look at the schedule, there aren’t a whole lot of non-division teams on there the Redskins should beat. The Rams were one. The Bucs, Vikings and Browns might be the others. October could be a rough month — Falcons, Vikings, at the Giants and at the Steelers — and they don’t want to head into it 1-3.

And that may be more of why it’s must-win territory. Redskins fans know all too well how morale sinks during a long losing streak. Getting back on track, quickly, is key to keeping everyone on board with Mike Shanahan. Even if the record doesn’t reflect it, this year is about growth. In Year 3 of a five-year plan, there needs to be some progress beyond “we found our quarterback.”

Really, if there are designs on a playoff spot — with five division games, plus the Panthers, Ravens and Browns in November and December — the Redskins have to win these games. It is not going to get much easier. Tampa Bay, at 1-2, isn’t a pushover. It’s the Redskins’ third road game this month. But the Bucs are in the same boat as the Redskins. They could really use the win too.

So really, the only logical question to ask here is Do The Bucs Even Stand a Chance?

(Jokes aside, your thoughts on whether this is a dire straits game, or whether there’s plenty of time to recover from 1-3, should it happen, would be appreciated in the comments).

Griffin and taking hits
I got a little flak for writing on Monday that it’s was an overreaction to worry about Griffin’s hits in the Bengals game, and deservedly so. But it’s a complex issue, and maybe one without a right answer.

We all agree, down to the guys who actually make the decisions, that you don’t want a quarterback to take a record number of hits. We can mince over if particular hits are bad, and how long Griffin can stand up to them, but it can’t continue like this for the rest of the season.

It’s also true that coaches can outsmart themselves by overscheming: Seeing something they think they can exploit, but being blind to the ways that could hurt in the long run.

However, in the context of a single game, one that the Redskins had a chance to win the second half, they were wise not to play scared. Running with Griffin (and Alfred Morris and Brandon Banks) was working against the Bengals, and the Redskins finished with 213 rushing yards. The offense gave the team a chance to win. If Griffin has to run four, eight, 12 or 16 times to get that one win, you do it, and adjust the game plan the following week.

But here’s what I think is getting overlooked. The Redskins have now put more looks on video than maybe any team in the league. Defenses, thinking they have to “figure out” how to stop Griffin, now prepare for read option, Brandon Banks motioning into the Pistol and other exotic looks. The more times defenses spend on that, the less they spend on game-planning for the Redskins’ base plays.

Sunday, the Redskins ran one play that looked like belly option (I don’t actually think it was;  it was fullback dive backside, then Griffin reversing, and he and Banks running the option playside, if I remember correctly). There are loads of ways to run option. If the Redskins can find the balance between limiting Griffin’s hits, but giving defenses things they haven’t seen since college to defend, there’ll be more 200-yard rushing days ahead. And that’s probably what the Redskins want, only with more of the burden being carried by the running back.

This is classic Shanahan. Set ‘em up, then hit ‘em with what they’re not expecting.

The Redskins might now have set the table for option passes later in the season, or games when they can show the option just once early, and then use it to set up a heavy dose of running back runs and play-action passes off of it.

I remember asking my Dad when I was a kid why pro teams didn’t run the option. I still remember his answer: That pros are too fast, too disciplined and quarterbacks are too valuable. All of that is still true.

But remember that going forward, the Redskins will have Pierre Garcon to stretch the field, and the newly-added Ryan Grant perhaps to help carry the backfield load. Against the Bengals and Rams they had neither, and the extra load on Griffin was helpful in trying to win those games. Ultimately, the Redskins got outscored and didn’t win either game, but they put some ideas into defensive coordinators’ heads.

So when the Redskins are using zone read runs and play-action passes with success later in the year, you can partially thank all those hits Griffin took running those plays, and forcing defenses to prepare for that option.

Going with who you’ve got
Tuesday, the Redskins added David Jones and let go of Crezdon Butler. They also brought in Grant. Short of bringing back Chris Cooley or Tim Hightower, Grant is probably the biggest name you’re going to see on an in-season move.

The Redskins we see now are who the Redskins are. Outside of safety Brandon Meriweather being cleared to play, there aren’t really secondary or offensive line reinforcements available or on the way. The Redskins have to get back on track with the guys on the roster, which is one reason why coaching is so highly valued in this league.

If Washington doesn’t have a cornerback that can flat take a team’s opposing No. 1 wide receiver out of the game, zone-heavy defenses and blitzes can help compensate for that. But just two weeks ago, against the Rams, the Redskins played a lot of zone and gave up 15 catches to an underneath specialist in Danny Amendola.

If they’re giving up big plays in man and zone, there isn’t a whole lot else that can be done. A defensive coordinator can dial up blitzes, roll coverages and have the defense better disguise what it’s doing. But at some point, whatever’s called, players have to play better. There aren’t any magic solutions, just that.

Thoughts?

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Mark Maske · September 25, 2012