For a quarterback who played just 10 series in the preseason, Robert Griffin III spent an inordinate amount of time on the ground, sacked four times.
None of the defenses he faced — New England, Cleveland and Baltimore — featured a front seven as imposing as the Houston Texans’, anchored by two-time Pro Bowl defensive end J.J. Watt and bolstered by the addition of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft.
With an eye toward keeping his quarterback upright and offense flowing in Sunday’s regular season opener in Houston, Washington Redskins Coach Jay Gruden is planning a multipronged counter that’s predicated on a heavy dose of running and short, quick passes designed to get Griffin into a throwing rhythm.
It’s a tall order that represents a major test for the Redskins’ offensive line.
The 6-foot-5, 289-pound Watt has shown all the attributes of the ideal pass-rushing end during his three NFL seasons — speed, power, long-armed and durable, starting all 48 games since the Texans drafted him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
This week, he added a new stunning statistic to his 108 quarterback hits, 36.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles: a $100 million contract extension that makes him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.
No one on the Redskins’ offensive line begrudged him a penny.
“J.J. just got a lot of money and got a lot of money for a reason. Good for him,” said right tackle Tyler Polumbus, who is expected to line up across from Watt for most of the snaps. “At the end of the day, it’s all about doing your job. We get paid to keep guys off the quarterback. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Griffin will need to help.
By all accounts, the third-year quarterback is fully recovered from his second reconstructive knee surgery, but he often hesitated in releasing the ball during the preseason. The last-second decision-making handicapped the offense more than once, with throws that were a tick too late and scrambles that lost more ground then they gained.
Against Houston, Griffin will need to let go of the ball more quickly.
“The longer he pats the ball back there and gives those great pass-rushers in Houston — or Dallas or New York or Philadelphia — any pass-rushers, for that matter, time to get after him, it’s not going to be good,” Gruden said. “So the whole intent of this offense is when we do pass it, we know where our quick elements are, we get the ball to our players out in space and let them do the work for him.”
To some extent, game-planning for Houston is a guessing game. There’s no shortage of highlight reels of Watt’s explosiveness and array of pass-rushing technique over his career — the swim move, the power move, the inside move.
But the 6-1, 266-pound Clowney has played just two preseason games, so the Redskins have little footage to go on apart from his heroics at South Carolina. And Texans defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has lined up both defensive stars in different spots.
Gruden is proceeding on the assumption Clowney will rush from the right side, across from left tackle Trent Williams, with Watt on the other side.
“We have a general idea, but it’s difficult,” Gruden said. “And to really envision the type of speed and size and power that [Clowney] has, just watching it on film, is also not easy.”
The solution is to minimize one-on-one matchups and adjust on the fly as needed.
“It’s going to be a group effort,” Redskins right guard Chris Chester said.
Williams, the most dynamic member of Washington’s offensive line, echoed the thought.
“No one lineman can take J.J. Watt out of the game,” Williams said. “But if we work together, we can kind of help neutralize him and contain him as much as possible. He’s going to have an impact on the game, no matter what.”
If Washington can get its running game going early, it would help take pressure off both Griffin and the line, which was retooled in the offseason. Left guard Kory Lichtensteiger slid to center, and free agent Shaun Lauvao took over Lichensteiger’s former spot. Time and again during the preseason, offensive drives sputtered after botched plays brought up second and long and third and long.
“If we get behind and it turns into a drop-back pass fest, it won’t be pretty,” Gruden said. “So it’s very important for us to stick with the run, run the ball and do the best we can in that regard to take some pressure off our quarterback and our linemen, for that matter.”
The running game was the strength of the Redskins’ attack last season, averaging 135.3 yards per game, which was fifth best in the NFL.
Washington tight end Logan Paulsen welcomes the blocking challenge in store Sunday.
“It’s exciting to go against the best,” the 6-5, 261-pound Paulsen said. “You want to see where you’re at, and this is an opportunity to do that. It is a little scary, but it’s also an exciting opportunity for this team to show that we’re here.”