Redskins let Robert Griffin III do what he does best, and he orchestrates a win

NEW ORLEANS — Not even Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III was certain of what Coach Mike Shanahan planned to unveil in Sunday’s season opener against the New Orleans Saints.

Griffin knew that Shanahan and his son, Kyle, the Redskins’ offensive coordinator, had installed special running plays for him during closed practices throughout the preseason and in last week’s game preparations. But would the elder Shanahan trust Griffin enough, in his regular season debut, to open up the playbook?

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The answer came quickly and emphatically in the best first-half performance by a rookie quarterback in NFL history based on passer rating, and continued until the Redskins completed a stunning 40-32 victory here.

The Shanahans’ creativity and Griffin’s efficiency and big-play production were a perfect combination as the Redskins scored the most points in a game since Mike Shanahan took control of the football operation in 2010. Option plays, the quarterback keeper, deep routes, using the whole field, putting playmakers in favorable positions — the Shanahans did it all.

What occurred defensively was equally encouraging for the Redskins.

The final score was misleading. For most of the game, the Saints struggled to establish a rhythm in their passing game. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett succeeded in mixing coverages and calling a variety of blitzes at the right time.

It all resulted in a disappointing opener for the Saints and their fans, who likely expected a much different outcome against a team that went 11-21 the past two seasons. Shanahan and Haslett, however, had sound plans. Let’s examine them closely.  

Letting Griffin be Griffin  

Though they worked on the option in practice, the Redskins did not use those plays in preseason games. Misdirection plays from the shotgun formation? It was all kept under wraps to conceal, as long as possible, how good Griffin could be from the start. Now there’s no more hiding it.

The Shanahans intended to put it all on Griffin and they did. If he struggled, they could have adjusted, but that didn’t happen. Griffin became the first rookie quarterback in league history with a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a first half (minimum 10 attempts), according to the Redskins. He finished with a 139.9 rating, completing 73 percent of his passes.

The Redskins’ strategy called for using the read option, keeper plays, naked bootlegs (running toward either side of the line without lead blockers) and the threat of Griffin running to confuse the defense and create openings in the secondary, which, the Redskins hoped, receivers would exploit. They did. Often.

On the read option, Griffin has the choice of running, handing off or throwing depending on how defensive ends and outside linebackers react. The Saints’ defensive ends repeatedly failed to keep Griffin from getting outside, meaning they were unable to stop him from getting into the open on designed runs.

The Saints thought the Redskins would use Griffin’s ability to run as the centerpiece of the Shanahans’ plan. They just didn’t do a good job against Griffin.

Another big part of the Shanahans’ approach was to help Griffin relax through their coaching. Griffin is most comfortable in the shotgun, so the Redskins operated almost exclusively in that formation.

In the first quarter, the Shanahans called quick-hitting plays to get the ball out of Griffin’s hands and limit the Saints’ pass-rushing opportunities. The Redskins figured that the Saints’ defense, not considered among the league’s best units, would struggle to keep pace with their quick tempo. They were correct.  

Winning individual battles on defense 

When Redskins coaches began reviewing film of the Saints’ offense last season, they saw the NFL’s best quarterback playing at the highest level of his career. Haslett knew there was no strategy he could devise to completely shut down Drew Brees.

The Redskins thought they had an advantage in the matchup of their defensive line and the Saints’ offensive line. That’s where it had to start for Haslett.

Nose tackle Barry Cofield and defensive ends Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker had to beat the Saints’ linemen consistently. They didn’t necessarily have to sack Brees. It was more about applying consistent pressure, batting down passes and disrupting the timing of Brees and the Saints’ wideouts, which usually is like clockwork.

Bowen was a disruptive force. He knocked down several passes in a strong performance. Cofield and Carriker also regularly got inside position with their rush moves. How concerned were the Saints about the Redskins’ consistently strong pass rush? They had numerous false starts among their 12 penalties.

Corner and safety blitzes, another crucial element in Haslett’s design, also prompted Brees to give up on many of the Saints’ deeper routes and throw away balls with the Redskins converging on him.

On one play in the second quarter, DeAngelo Hall and DeJon Gomes blitzed from the same side and Hall got the sack. The Redskins were also, in large part, solid in man coverage in the secondary. A lot of individual victories added up for them.          

  A new lead running back  

Privately, Shanahan told people last week that rookie running back Alfred Morris was his guy. At one point, Shanahan considered starting second-year back Evan Royster only because he didn’t want to put too much pressure on Morris.

But during the installation of the game plan for the Saints, Shanahan decided to go with Morris because he considers him the Redskins’ best player at the position — by far. The stretch play is the staple of Shanahan’s offense. The play requires backs to sprint on an angle toward one side of the line, receive the handoff from the quarterback, make one cut and turn up field.

In part because of Morris’s power to finish runs well and gain extra yards, the Redskins expected to have a good day in the running game. If they did, it would help ease the load on Griffin. Morris rushed for a game-high 96 yards and two touchdowns. Mission accomplished.              

What it all means  

In his first meaningful game, Griffin was the dynamic player the Redskins envisioned he would become eventually. Just remember: Washington started 2-0 last season and finished 5-11. There are at least 15 more of these to go. But judging by what we saw from Griffin, watching the Redskins could be a whole lot more fun than it has been in a long time.

For columns by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid

 
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