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Robert Griffin III must learn to protect himself

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Coaches and teammates admire Robert Griffin III’s willingness to sacrifice his body in an effort to win. Playing it safe at times, however, can also be a good thing.

Five games into his NFL career, Griffin is learning painful lessons about when to be aggressive and when to back off. He chose poorly during the Washington Redskins’ 24-17 loss Sunday to the Atlanta Falcons. Griffin took an unnecessary risk running while trying to pick up a first down and was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter.

Griffin remained face down on the field for several seconds after absorbing a shot from Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, whose big hit was within the rules, and was wobbly when he got up. Following the NFL’s concussion protocol, Griffin was removed because he couldn’t answer basic questions about the game, such as the score and what quarter it was, Coach Mike Shanahan said.

The Redskins, who lost their eighth straight at FedEx Field over two seasons, may also be without Griffin in their next game, when they host the Minnesota Vikings. Under league rules, Griffin will not be permitted to practice or play until he is cleared by neurologists who are not affiliated with the Redskins. Clearly, the Redskins cannot afford to lose Griffin.That was obvious after Kirk Cousins, Griffin’s backup, played exactly like what he is: A rookie who was making his NFL debut late in a game. Griffin is far more advanced than Cousins at directing Washington’s offense.

The Falcons had a major pass coverage breakdown that resulted in Cousins and wide receiver Santana Moss teaming on a 77-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter (Moss went uncovered). But Cousins’s final two passes were intercepted to seal the Redskins’ third loss in four games and drop their record to 2-3.

If Griffin is not cleared to play against the Vikings, the Redskins could turn back to former starter Rex Grossman.

They also could have a new place kicker by next weekend. After missing three of four field-goal attempts in a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week, Billy Cundiff failed to connect on a 31-yarder in the second quarter Sunday. It would be surprising if Washington did not conduct kicker tryouts Tuesday at Redskins Park.

Although the Redskins’ defense (the league’s fourth worst entering the game) had some encouraging moments, the front seven isn’t generating a consistent pass rush. Even when it blitzed, Washington rarely harassed Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had 345 yards passing.

But Washington’s poor defense and ineffective kicking game are lesser problems compared to Griffin’s injury.

Be smart, young man

Shanahan and his play-caller son, Kyle, modified the Redskins’ offense as much because of Griffin’s beyond-his-years maturity as his strong arm and speed.

Cousins is a classic drop-back, pro-style quarterback. He’s just not suited to run the option plays that have stretched opposing defenses and opened opportunities in the passing and running game for others (for the second straight week, rookie back Alfred Morris rushed for more than 100 yards).

Even if Griffin is cleared to play against the Vikings, teammates, who have privately expressed concerns about how much he challenges linebackers, hope Sunday’s collision will serve as a wake-up call for him.

“We’d like to have him throw the football away when he’s outside of the pocket,” team leader London Fletcher said, “and not take the hit like that.”

Griffin took a pounding on designed runs in a Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Since then, the Shanahans have scaled back on exposing Griffin by design. In fact, Griffin officially had only one run for seven yards against the Falcons (he was injured scrambling). But unless they want to yank Griffin from games, which isn’t an option, the Shanahans can’t stop him from taking risks during a play.

Calling all kickers

The Redskins finally gave up on former place kicker Graham Gano because he didn’t display the mental toughness coaches expected. Just like Gano, Cundiff is talented — but you just can’t miss 31-yarders.

Cundiff could have extended the Redskins’ lead to 10-0. On the ensuing drive, tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a one-yard touchdown pass from Ryan. Cundiff’s miss was a momentum-changer.

Each week, special teams coordinator Danny Smith monitors the kicking market for potential replacements. Smith knows when it’s time to start making calls.

More pass rush needed

In the NFL, only Tampa Bay has given up more passing yards than the Redskins. Although it’s true that Washington’s secondary has been burned for too many big plays, quarterbacks have had way too much time in the pocket.

No defensive back could consistently win individual matchups playing behind the Redskins’ front seven at the moment. Blitzing hasn’t helped much, either. The Redskins’ issues appear to be more about personnel than scheme.

The takeaway

In a game in which the Shanahans did their best to protect Griffin, he suffered his worst injury as a pro. Now, it’s on Griffin to protect himself when he gets on the field again. For the Redskins, that moment can’t come soon enough.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

More on the Redskins and NFL: Griffin injured in loss to Atlanta Summary: Falcons 24, Redskins 17 Wise: RGIII’s concussion is worst nightmare RGIII injured on big hit after playing close to the edge Rookie Cousins makes his NFL debut Unbeaten Falcons still have work to do Redskins-Falcons best and worst Gallery: Scenes from FedEx Field Your take: Grade RGIII Shanahan unsure of team’s next move at kicker NFL to probe Redskins’ release of RGIII info Griffin says he expects to play next week

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