After three games, it’s clear the Washington Redskins are committed to their unconventional offense, with Robert Griffin III running what often amounts to a college option scheme that features the quarterback on designed running plays. What’s also obvious is that Griffin is taking a beating because of it.
The Griffin-led offense staged a second-half rally in Sunday’s home opener, but Washington’s defense failed again in a 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
For the second time in as many weeks, Redskins cornerbacks and safeties reinforced doubts about their ability to support the team’s defensive linemen and linebackers. The Bengals repeatedly torched Washington’s secondary for big plays.
In preparation for Sunday’s game, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett emphasized coverage fundamentals, with defensive backs spending additional time working on their man-to-man technique during practice. Judging from the results, Haslett and his staff will have to start all over again.
Although outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and lineman Adam Carriker are out for the season, the Redskins’ defensive problems appear much more significant than the absence of two talented starters. Haslett faces personnel issues that might not be fixable before the offseason.
The news on offense was more encouraging, though still mixed.
Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son Kyle made effective adjustments at halftime, but only after Griffin was hit repeatedly, whether in the pocket or on designed runs, as the Redskins struggled to establish the rhythm essential to the option offense the Shanahans designed to capitalize on Griffin’s athleticism.
The Redskins missed left tackle Trent Williams, who played little after suffering a knee injury in the first quarter. The bigger concern for the coaching staff, though, is that the Bengals were able to attack Griffin with their defensive ends.
One game isn’t enough to tell if the rest of the league has caught on to the Redskins’ plan. The Bengals, however, certainly seemed to have a good idea of what to do against Griffin.
A lot went wrong for the Redskins. Let’s look at why.
Griffin is great at confusing and misleading defensive ends and linebackers, which is the key element of the Redskins’ version of the read option. Depending on the alignment of the defense and how ends and linebackers react after the snap, Griffin has options.
The Bengals’ ends were outstanding at making their reads. On many plays, Cincinnati’s ends followed Griffin instead of pursuing running backs on faked inside handoffs. Washington’s offensive line also lost too many individual battles, resulting in Griffin winding up on his back while he was in the process of pitching the ball.
Williams is one of the league’s most athletic tackles. The Shanahans rely on him to provide big running lanes on option runs. Without Williams, Griffin had more difficulty getting to the edge on designed runs.
Griffin led the Redskins with 85 yards rushing and averaged 7.1 yards per carry. But he was hit way too much, including six sacks. There’s a cumulative effect to the punishment Griffin has received. Don’t expect it to add up well for him or the Redskins.
In the second half, the Shanahans used wide receiver-returner Brandon Banks more in backfield formations to “freeze” the Bengals’ defensive linemen.
The Shanahans hoped Cincinnati’s ends would be less aggressive running toward Griffin if Banks, among the league’s fastest players, provided a running threat in the shotgun formation alongside Griffin. It worked.
Banks had 29 yards on three carries, and Cincinnati’s ends were less productive in the third quarter as the Redskins rallied. Having Banks on the field was a threat Bengals coaches had to consider.
Griffin also handed off more to running back Alfred Morris after halftime instead of keeping the ball. The adjustments helped.
Redskins coaches figured the team’s defensive front seven would be good enough to overcome, or at least largely cover up, the shortcomings in the secondary. Instead the opposite has been true: The secondary is dragging down the entire team.
Against the Bengals, the defensive backfield started poorly and went downhill from there.
The Redskins’ defensive plan focused on superstar wide receiver A.J. Green. He beat safety DeJon Gomes for a 73-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage and finished with nine catches for 183 yards.
Cornerback Josh Wilson, knowing he had no deep help with Washington blitzing in the second quarter, displayed poor technique on Armon Binns’s 48-yard touchdown. The capper was Andrew Hawkins’s 59-yard touchdown in the fourth that helped the Bengals take a 38-24 lead.
The Redskins couldn’t stop sideline patterns all day. With about eight minutes remaining, the Bengals were at their 41-yard line on second down. Haslett called an alignment that provided safety help on the outside receivers. That left backup cornerback Richard Crawford alone in the middle of the field with Hawkins. It turned out poorly for the Redskins.
The NFL is all about passing these days. Defensive backs get beat every week. But the Redskins are being plagued by multiple breakdowns per game. They must play tighter in the back end and break toward the ball better when it’s in the air.
At 1-2, the Redskins don’t appear to have any short- or long-term answers for a defense that isn’t supporting their improved offense. It seems the Redskins will pile up points and yards so long as Griffin is on the field. But with the way the Shanahans are using him, how long will that be?
For previous columns by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.
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