The most popular explanation for the Washington Redskins’ failure on offense is that quarterback Robert Griffin III has struggled, which he has, but you would miss the big picture focusing on Griffin. Washington’s worst problem starts up front: Its formerly productive offensive line has been miscast in a new production.
After making a splash last season with a college option-style offense — Washington tied for first in the NFL in yards per play and led the league in rushing — offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan added more traditional drop-back passing plays to the playbook. The idea was to keep opponents guessing. So far, only the Redskins have appeared confused.
The Redskins (0-2) have had no answers, while their interior linemen — center Will Montgomery and guards Chris Chester and Kory Lichtensteiger — have been manhandled in trying to engage pass rushers differently than they did last season. True, the Redskins have had to adjust their second-half play-calling because they’ve been way behind. But at least half the reason for those huge deficits is that the offense hasn’t generated a point before halftime all season.
Often, the pocket has collapsed around Griffin, who has been sacked four times, hit 12 and otherwise harassed by opposing pass rushers. Defensive linemen have clogged passing lanes, tipped several of Griffin’s passes — that didn’t happen regularly in 2012 — and disrupted the timing of the passing game. The Redskins haven’t established a rhythm on offense until it was too late.
No NFL offensive line is perfect. And the Redskins, in catch-up mode early, have attempted an average of 44.5 passes — way more than they would prefer in their run-heavy system. In comparison, Griffin attempted just 26.2 passes per game in leading the Redskins to the 2012 NFC East title. It’s harder to block well when the defense knows what’s coming.
Still, Washington’s line, for the most part, hasn’t gotten the job done when Griffin has dropped back. Pro Bowl left tackle Trent Williams could lead any group. Right tackle Tyler Polumbus, Montgomery, Chester and Lichtensteiger aren’t rock stars.
The unit was effective last season because Griffin was on the move so often. Quarterback draws, zone-read runs, bootlegs, moving the pocket — Shanahan threw it all at opponents, and the line moved well enough to deliver. This season, the line isn’t playing to its strength.
Right about now, some probably are suggesting an easy solution: Just go back to what they did last season. If only it were that simple.
In the NFL, coaches say, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. The offense had to evolve for the Redskins to grow as a team. It also made sense, with Griffin having sat out preseason games for precautionary reasons, to limit his exposure on designed runs early in his first season after reconstructive knee surgery.
Kyle Shanahan devised formations and plays he thought would help Washington improve. Even if Shanahan could scrap the playbook and start over or bring in several new first-rate linemen, an impossibility during the season, it’s doubtful he would after just two games. The Redskins have no choice but to be all-in on what they’re doing. They have to find a way to make it work — or at least make it better than it has been to this point.
Griffin is another hurdle to turning back the clock. Throughout the offseason, the signal-caller and his father, Robert Griffin Jr., made it known to Kyle and his father, Coach Mike Shanahan, that they wanted more passing, less running. The rest of the league was listening.
Essentially, Griffin, who says his knee is fine, announced to opponents his intention to become an elite pocket passer. Then he stopped running. Griffin had 25 yards rushing combined against the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. The Redskins ran a total of nine zone-read plays in their first two games, but you almost couldn’t tell from the reaction of the defense.
For zone-read plays to work best, opponents must believe the quarterback is willing to run. Griffin set an NFL single-season rushing record for rookie quarterbacks because, in large part, the Redskins’ option was so effective with him and 1,600-yard rusher Alfred Morris in the backfield. The Eagles and Packers never feared Griffin taking off this season.
Predictably, defensive ends and linebackers locked in on Morris, who despite rushing for more than 100 yards against the Packers hasn’t had the strong start the coaching staff envisioned. The struggles of the line, Griffin’s uninspiring performance and Morris’s reduced role in the second half of blowouts have been confidence-shakers for an offense that figured it would rank among the game’s best.
Potentially, though, there is some good news for the Redskins. The Shanahans remain committed to the zone-read portion of the offense. Presumably, Griffin will regain his rookie form as the season progresses and run enough to help free Morris.
Anyone who has watched Washington’s defense knows its offense must carry the team. It’s unclear whether the Redskins can get it turned around, but this much is certain: There’s a lot riding on the line.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.