ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — On a night when Robert Griffin III was destined to command the spotlight whether he succeeded or failed, the Washington Redskins used a resilient showing from the rookie quarterback and his offense and stingy efforts from their first-, second- and third-team defenses to open the preseason with a 7-6 victory over the Bills on Thursday night.
Getting his feet wet with a 14-play sampling against Buffalo, the highly touted rookie impressed by leading an eight-play, 80-yard scoring drive that climaxed with a 20-yard touchdown pass to free agent addition Pierre Garcon.
That play would be the only touchdown of the game. Griffin and the offensive starters were pulled after that, and the Redskins’ defense came out and held Buffalo’s starters in check for a third series. The Redskins limited the Bills starters to just 55 yards and two first downs. Buffalo had a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Stevie Johnson negated by an illegal formation call.
Second-year outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan set the tone early for the Redskins’ defense, sacking Fitzpatrick on the Bills’ first offensive play. Kerrigan also recorded a quarterback pressure, a pass deflection and a tackle for a loss.
“Like Coach [Mike] Shanahan just said, no matter when it is, it’s always good to win,” Kerrigan said. “That’s the goal. Even if it’s preseason, it’s still fun to win . . . I think both sides of the ball really came out and played pretty well.”
Washington’s defense, which returns all seven starters up front, is expected to be the strength of the team as Griffin adjusts to the NFL behind an offensive line currently without three injured starters. The unit certainly did its part by keeping Buffalo out of the end zone. But Griffin also credited his defensive teammates for the success that he experienced in his NFL debut.
In the last two weeks of training camp practices, Washington’s defense has thrown exotic blitzes and coverages at their rookie quarterback in an attempt to test him. For this week at least, it worked. Griffin, who at times appeared hesitant in practices, worked through his progressions with ease and made quick decisions Thursday night.
“Practice is a lot harder than the games,” Griffin said with a smile. “It’s kind of the same in college, but even more so in the pros. . . . You come out to the game, and you can see all the reads a lot clearer . . . The holes were a lot bigger. I felt I was able to read things a lot cleaner and get the ball out of my hands.”
Said outside linebacker Brian Orakpo: “RGIII knows that the defensive pressure, and the outside linebackers we have, you’re not going to find that often around the league.”
On the scoring drive, the first team overcame a couple of gaffes that had thwarted their efforts on the first two possessions of the game.
On the first, after back-to-back one-yard carries by Evan Royster, Griffin attempted his first pass, which found the hands of Garcon on an out route. The former Indianapolis Colt secured the ball, but got only one foot down as he ran out of bounds, bringing on fourth and eight.
On the next Redskins possession, Royster was stuffed for a three-yard loss, but Griffin completed a sideline pass to Leonard Hankerson, who slipped past a defender and picked up 12 yards to set up third and one.
But on the very next play, Griffin’s handoff to Royster slipped through the halfback’s hands and fell to the turf. The Bills recovered at the Washington 21-yard line.
Griffin and Co. returned for a third possession down 3-0, after a 43-yard field goal by Buffalo’s Rian Lindell. Seemingly aware that the possession would be their last of the game, the starters made the most of the opportunity.
Royster had carries of three, 12, five and two yards — all behind the battered right side of the line, which featured backups Adam Gettis and Tyler Polumbus in place of guard Chris Chester and tackle Jammal Brown, respectively. And Griffin connected with Garcon on strikes of 20, 18 and 20 yards.
The final 20-yard completion began as a short screen to the left on third and three from the Buffalo 20. Garcon darted forward, picked up blocks from left tackle Trent Williams and a pulling Gettis, and raced into the end zone.
Griffin knew the play was good before Garcon even reached the end zone.
“That first first down is always the toughest one to get, but once you get that, you can start getting into a flow, and I think we did as an offense,” Griffin said. “The offensive line got confident that third drive, and we scored a touchdown.”
And with that, the Redskins starters’ work was done.
Griffin’s final stat line: 4 for 6, 70 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, no sacks, and a quarterback rating of 145.8 – not too shabby considering a perfect quarterback rating is 158.3.
Garcon’s Redskins debut consisted of three catches for 58 yards and the touchdown, and Royster gained 21 yards on seven carries, with a long of 12 yards.
“I think Robert played well,” Shanahan said. “I thought that first third-down pass was really close to being in. . . . And then we had that turnover on third and one. I couldn’t see the exchange. I thought we did some pretty good things. I thought we moved the ball, and for 14 plays, you couldn’t ask for much more.”
Of the defense, Shanahan said: “I was pleased. Any time you give up that kind of effort and enthusiasm, only six points, first, second, third team and in some positions, fourth team, you’re very pleased.”
The biggest defensive stand came from the second unit, which was backed up near the goal line, but yielded no points. Midway through the second quarter, the Bills had nine straight plays inside the Washington 20-yard line and failed to score a touchdown. Lindell shanked his field goal attempt on fourth and goal from the 4-yard line.
Buffalo mustered a fourth-quarter field goal, but that was all. So the missed field goal proved the deciding factor of the night.
“It was kind of the game-winning [stand] for us with them missing the field goal,” backup nose tackle Chris Baker said. “It was a big couple of plays for the defense.”
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