EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Becoming an instant NFL star was only the beginning for Robert Griffin III. Griffin will, in large part, be judged on how the Redskins fare against NFC East opponents throughout his career. He’s off to a heartbreaking start.
Despite his two turnovers, Griffin was mostly spectacular again Sunday while leading the Redskins to a late rally that put them in position for a road victory in their first division game. But the Redskins’ defense collapsed again as Eli Manning led the New York Giants to a 27-23 win.
Griffin silenced the MetLife Stadium crowd when he teamed with wide receiver Santana Moss on a 30-yard touchdown that gave the Redskins the lead with 1 minute 32 seconds showing on the clock.
Unfortunately for the Redskins, that was simply too much time with Manning working against their ineffective secondary.
Only seconds after Griffin’s second touchdown pass of the game to Moss, Giants wideout Victor Cruz sped past Redskins defensive backs and hauled in a 77-yard go-ahead touchdown from Manning. Griffin still had 1:13 left, and he was eager to add another game-winning drive to his résumé.
Facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 4, Griffin made big plays on the Redskins’ final possession that helped the team win on a field goal. Griffin just didn’t have the ball long enough against the Giants.
Moss was stripped after Griffin completed a pass to him for 11 yards. The Giants recovered the ball with 39 seconds to play. Manning took the snap and kneeled once to run out the clock as the first-place Giants outlasted the Redskins, who suddenly have major problems on offense as well as defense.
In the first quarter, the Redskins absorbed another blow to their passing game when top tight end Fred Davis suffered a torn left Achilles’ tendon injury. He’s expected to be sidelined the remainder of the season. No. 1 wideout Pierre Garcon has missed four of the team’s seven games because of a foot injury. Although there is no timetable for Garcon’s return, people familiar with his situation believe he will need at least another month of rest. Without Davis and Garcon, the Redskins have few down-the-field playmakers. That only puts more pressure on Griffin to be phenomenal on every play.
Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan continued to draw up interesting formations Sunday to accentuate Griffin’s running skills. For the most part, Shanahan also has succeeded at masking the Redskins’ inability to challenge defenses with deep passes. However, there’s only so much he can continue to do with smoke and mirrors.
Of the remaining nine games on the Redskins’ schedule, five are against division opponents (one against the Giants and two apiece against the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles). Those teams know the Redskins the best. The stakes rise during NFC East games, players acknowledge, because of the importance of winning the division title in achieving postseason goals. It appears the Redskins are now at their weakest on offense with their most important — and difficult — stretch of games ahead.
The Redskins, though, still have Griffin. And yet again Sunday he showed that, given time, he can make the impossible seem possible. Griffin passed for 258 yards (he had a sparkling passer rating of 108.9) and two touchdowns with one interception and one fumble. He rushed for 89 yards on only nine carries.
Griffin put a scare in the Super Bowl champions even with the Redskins severely short-handed on offense. Let’s examine what happened.
From the season’s start, the Redskins’ play-caller has displayed creativity and flexibility in tailoring the offense to Griffin. Needing to take his game to a higher level Sunday, Kyle Shanahan had his best performance.
The Giants are second to none in the league at rushing the passer. The best way to slow pass rushers is to stir doubt in their minds about when they should be aggressive in pursuing the quarterback.
Early in the game, Kyle called numerous dive plays (runs into the middle of the line) for Alfred Morris (120 yards) from the team’s option-offense formations. The effect was that the Giants’ defensive ends and tackles often hesitated while trying to determine whether Morris or Griffin had the ball.
Shanahan also went deeper into his playbook. On some plays, he had as many as three other players in the backfield with Griffin. At times, Morris, fullback Darrel Young and a tight end would flank Griffin and stand behind him. The Redskins gained yards in chunks on dive plays from those formations and got to the edge for big gains. The most significant result, though, was that the Giants’ defensive ends were frustrated trying to read plays in an attempt to determine whether the Redskins were running or passing — and who actually had the ball.
The Giants regularly applied significant pressure in the second half (New York had three sacks and collected four turnovers after the break), when it was clear Griffin had to drop back and pass. Without Garcon, the Redskins lack speed on the outside to challenge defensive backs on deep patterns. And with Davis now gone as well, Griffin is missing his No. 1 move-the-chains target in the midrange passing game.
Playing for Davis, backup tight end Logan Paulsen, who rarely gets first-team snaps during practice, and Griffin were clearly out of sync on Griffin’s interception late in the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, backup tight end Niles Paul whiffed in pass protection against gifted Giants end Jason Pierre-Paul. Griffin was sacked.
Okay, so Manning topped Griffin in what Magic Johnson calls “Winnin’ Time.” Still, let’s quickly review Griffin’s most recent special performance in a final quarter.
The Redskins started on their 23-yard line with 2:59 on the clock and quickly faced fourth down and 10 from the 23. Griffin somehow eluded the rush while running around in the backfield in an effort to extend the play before completing a 19-yard pass to Paulsen in the middle of the field. On the next play, Griffin scrambled for 24 yards.
After Griffin’s four-yard pass to Josh Morgan, he threw the most picturesque 30-yard pass you’ll ever see to Moss for the go-ahead score. It wasn’t a game-clinching 76-yard run — but it was special nonetheless.
Redskins cornerbacks have struggled in any type of coverage this season. No arguments about that here.
The problem is, the front seven isn’t generating a consistent pass rush and the Redskins safeties have been downright awful providing help. Free safety Madieu Williams has been the worst offender.
The nine-year veteran was supposed to support Josh Wilson against Cruz. We all see how that turned out.
Add the Giants to the growing list of Griffin’s fans. Their coaches and players said he’s definitely the real deal, and they expect him only to get better.
And even though Griffin’s first game against the Giants ended badly for him and the Redskins, it’s clearly a new day in the NFC East.
For columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
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Summary: Giants 27, Redskins 23
Photos: Scenes from MetLife Stadium
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