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Changing the driver: RGIII, Mike Shanahan and Washington's offense

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Just how different was Washington's offense in 2012 with RGIII at the helm? Not as different as you might think.

Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

After 2011, Mike Shanahan realized he was on the hot seat and knew he could be coming to the end of his rope in Washington. So, he went all-in to get Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, and he decided to dump his tried and true NFL offensive scheme for the crazy offense his new quarterback ran in college. It was a wild success. The 2012 Redskins energized a beleaguered franchise for the first time in a decade.

It could probably be made into a decent enough movie (Michael B. Jordan would be RGIII because he’s this year’s Channing Tatum, and must be used in any hypothetical casting situation). Of course, like most movies that are based on true events, there are plenty of liberties taken with what really happened. Starting with the Redskins chucking Mike Shanahan’s traditional offense.

RGIII was running basically the same offense John Elway ran.


If you go back and watch the 2012 Redskins, they look a lot like every other Mike Shanahan team except for the fact that the QB took a lot of snaps from three yards deep, in the pistol alignment, as opposed to straight under center. That may seem like a major change but it really isn’t. The Redskins still ran a ton of outside zone from pistol formations (and booted off it), and still played with a fullback or H-back a lot of the time. The offense was a lot closer to the traditional Shanahan offense than it was to Art Briles’ spread offense that Griffin ran at Baylor. It may not have seemed like it, but RGIII was running basically the same offense John Elway ran towards the end of his career. It just didn’t feel the same because the differences just happened to be different in the most noticeable way possible.

When fans watch football, what they are really doing is watching the ball. As a result, it’s easy to get caught up in relatively minor changes that just so happen to affect the one guy with the ball. The other 10 players on offense are merely scenery. Let’s take an option route for example (like the one Chris Brown talked about at Grantland last week). On an option route, the player running it has the choice to break in, out, or to sit and come back to the ball. If a team ran the same play three times in a row and the player happened to choose a different option each time and get the ball, it would appear to the viewing public that that team had just run three different plays to the same guy even though the other 10 guys on offense did the same thing every time. These are not different plays; they just look different because the guy we end up watching did something different.

This is the story of the Redskins offense last year. The offense primarily ran the same plays Shanahan’s teams have always run. Because some formations were slightly altered (again the QB lined up three yards deeper than normal sometimes) and the one guy that always touches the ball had an extra option, it seemed like a new offense. It wasn’t that RGIII was running different plays than Rex Grossman had the year before; he was just running the same plays much better because he’s a much better player (#analysis).

Let’s take a look at some classic Washington plays that got turbo-charged with Griffin at the helm.

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This is an inside zone slice concept (some might call it a bend from a straight I formation, but it’s still fricking slice) that literally every team in the NFL runs at this point. The idea of the play is simple: you run inside zone and have a blocker (either a fullback or tight end usually) come across the blocking scheme and seal off the backside to create a cutback lane. Coaches will tell you that the play isn’t designed to go backside necessarily, but that’s like the warning on Q-tips that advise you that they aren’t meant to clean your ears.

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The reason everyone runs this play is because it’s really well-designed. It creates double teams, and it gets the defense moving one way and then seals off the last line of defense against a cutback. The problem with it is that because everyone runs it, defenses and individual players are getting really good at defending it. Here, Justin Tuck feels the offensive tackle going away from him, so Tuck grabs him and pulls himself through to eliminate as much space as possible. Tuck knows that the rest of his teammates are going to move with the flow of the play to avoid being reached and maintain their gaps, so he has to close as much space as possible to eliminate a cutback lane. Once Tuck closes the space, he sees the fullback coming and prepares to play some good old-fashioned, red-blooded American football.

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Textbook. Tuck sees the fullback coming and gets ready to deliver a forearm shiver. He blows the lead back up with the flipper (also known as "feeding him the burrito"), sheds him, and makes the tackle for a short gain. Look how much he changed the fullback’s pad level from the first frame to the second. That’s a grown-ass man play right there.

And that’s the issue with running this play. There are a lot of grown-ass men playing defensive end in the NFL, and they are going to make plays like this if you try to make a living blocking them with fullbacks and tight ends for four quarters. The Redskins traditionally have tried to keep defensive ends honest with a lot of play-action bootlegs and half-rolls, but there’s only so much you’re going to do that with Rex Grossman. The bootleg threat became a lot more real with Robert Griffin III under center. As a result, defensive ends were a little more hesitant to close space inside and fully engage fullbacks.

But it wasn’t just the threat of bootlegs that defensive ends had to worry about from RGIII. They also had to worry about the most talked about play of the year, the read option.

First, I think the read option is here to stay, and is not some flavor of the month. It is here to stay because it is not a gimmick play. It’s inside zone. Yeah, there’s the threat of the quarterback running, but the blocking is just inside zone. Teams may run it a little less if they’re worried about injury issues from the quarterback. But there is no magic elixir that defensive coordinators are going to come up with to stop it, because it’s just inside zone with one less guy to block. Offenses have had success running inside zone since at least the '80s and the zone read is, once again, inside zone. Again: it’s inside zone, and inside zone works.

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Here’s the first play the Redskins ran against the Ravens this year. What’s the difference between that and the first play I diagrammed for the guys up front? The only differences are that instead of having to block a defensive end, the fullback gets to block a linebacker, and the running back gets the ball already on the backside of the play and doesn’t have to bend anything back. Everyone else is doing the same thing.

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Nine of the Redskins are running the exact same play I diagrammed from 2011, but now they don’t have to worry about the guy who has the best chance of blowing a slice play up, the defensive end. RGIII simply reads him and makes a decision on whether to keep the ball around the edge or give it Alfred Morris inside. Here the end is barreling up field, so Griffin gives the ball to Morris. In theory, the defensive end should never be right.

Essentially, Washington has taken the player most likely to make the play and made him the player least likely to make the play without changing a thing for most of the offense.

Also, Trent Williams is X’d out here because he blocks the wrong guy. My guess is that the center didn’t convey the fact that safety Bernard Pollard rolled up on the line of scrimmage during the cadence, thus changing who the de facto Mike linebacker would be and who Williams would have to work to. It doesn’t affect the play, but I just wanted to point out that Redskins shouldn’t be wasting two blockers on the same outside linebacker. They’re essentially giving up the extra man they get when they make the quarterback a running threat.

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If the fact that the Redskins don’t have to block the defensive end wasn’t enough of a selling point, the read option has the added benefit of causing linebackers to temporarily revert to a bunch of high schoolers. For some reason, when linebackers see read option action in the backfield, they completely abandon any thoughts of what gap they have in their run fits and just watch the ball.

In the first play, the entire defense flows with the offensive line as it starts its zone blocking to the left (hence why it was so important for Tuck to close the space). Here, the linebackers are all looking in the backfield and freeze when they see Griffin and Morris meshing. They completely lose all leverage on the play and leave gigantic holes on the right side of the line.

It may look like Haloti Ngata is getting his ass kicked above, but that’s because he’s the only one actually flowing with the blocking to maintain his gap. It’s everyone else that loses any semblance of gap integrity and creates a crater in the middle of the defense.

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I mean look at 50. The entire offensive line is zone blocking to its right and he’s actually moved to the left one yard over the course of the play. He’s so worried about who has the ball that he’s not in a position to do his job. It’s really just bad football.

I think that will be the biggest difference in defending the read option this year for NFL defenses. I think they’ll do a much better job of not worrying about who has the ball and just play their gaps. You have to let your players know they don’t have to make every play, just the ones that come to you. Here, it’s not 50’s job to tackle RGIII if he pulls it; it’s his job to keep Alfred Morris from running through the right A gap for 30 yards.

Since you can’t write about the read option and not show a keeper, we move on to another play.

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There’s so much football goodness going on here. It’s the same play, but with a flexed tight end. First, notice the two-way go Alfred Morris has if RGIII would’ve handed it off to him. If he gets the ball, he’s reading that backside defensive tackle. Here, the defensive tackle flowed playside pretty well so Morris had a small seam just off his left guard’s left side, assuming the defensive end wouldn’t have come crashing down like a maniac.

But the end did come crashing down like a maniac (notice him preparing the burrito for the H-back in the second frame), so Griffin keeps it. I’m not sure if the Eagles are running a scrape exchange (where the end crashes to force a give read and the outside linebacker loops around to make the play) and the outside linebacker is wrong, or if they aren’t. The end just really wants to deliver a blow against the H-back, responsibility be damned.

Either way, the Redskins are covered because the H-back is reading the defensive end just like Griffin is. If the D-end slow plays for Griffin or charges up the field towards the QB, the H-back turns inside of him to block the outside linebacker. If the end crashes like he does here, he slips outside him and tries to seal the outside linebacker inside to give Griffin room to run. Here, since the Eagles are screwed up (once again, not sure which Eagle is wrong) when the H-back slips, the crashing end has no one to block. So now, RGIII has a ton of space and a lead blocker. This is unfair.

As close as the running game was to what the Shanahan clan had always run, the passing concepts shared even more similarities. The drop back, West Coast principles were there and you still saw a ton of bootlegs (not to mention the half-bootleg throwbacks that the Redskins and Texans always run where a tight end is always wide open for at least a 20-yard gain). It’s just these plays didn’t feel the same because guys were so open. People assumed the Redskins were doing something different when they weren’t. They were just doing it better.

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Here’s a pretty basic route combination that Mike Shanahan has probably been running since before RGIII was born. It’s a max protect, play action shot play that’s essentially a two-man route combination (the backs are blockers first and leak out afterwards). One guy runs a deep cross, the other runs a deep post behind him. It’s that simple. The goal here is to make the safety or safeties make a choice on who to take away.

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First, notice that the play action was not particularly effective. The middle linebacker has good depth on his drop, and the two safeties were so worried about run support that they are barely in the screen at around 20 yards away from the LOS.

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Since the safeties are so deep, Grossman decides to go with the "underneath" route (underneath being about 17 yards down the field). Because it’s Santana Moss against Jerod Mayo, you have to say the play worked out about as well as Washington could have hoped for. In fact, it turned out to be an 18-yard completion. Still, even getting a great matchup, the Washington QB still had to make a bit of a throw.

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There’s another angle. I mean, if Mayo gets his head around, that’s actually a fairly easy deflection. That’s a linebacker on a wide receiver, with the safeties playing way off, and that’s all the room you have to get a completion. NFL QBs should be able to make that throw, but there sure isn’t much room for error.

Now let’s take a look at how the same play (well, a version of the same play) looks with Griffin at the helm.

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I say a version of the same play because the Redskins are actually running a bit of a counter off of the standard. Since they run this route combination enough, they can actually have effective pump fakes/counters off it. Here, the guy at the top of the screen fakes the cross and goes to the corner.

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Just like the Patriots, the Cowboys are fortunate to be in a two-deep safety look. Unlike the Patriots, the Cowboys’ LBs all bite hard on the play action. Because of the read option look, they all stare at RGIII and fail to notice that the o-line is doing a pretty poor job selling the run fake. This creates lots of room for Washington’s receivers to operate.

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If you ever are around a defensive backs coach during a practice or film session, there’s a good chance you will hear the term "eye discipline" roughly 8,500 times in a two-hour time span. Eye discipline refers to a defensive back's keys as a play starts. A typical key would be something like an uncovered offensive lineman (to help you determine run or pass) to the number two (the second receiver from the sideline). This assures that the defensive back isn’t out of position because he’s doing something stupid like watching the ball in the backfield.

Here, the circled safety is doing something stupid by watching the ball in the backfield. You can see what terrible eye discipline is. The safety is looking directly at RGIII and has no idea of the routes developing around him. As a result, he’s flat-footed as Leonard Hankerson (who’s pretty fast) has a full head of steam just a few yards away. The other safety is in much better shape and has a chance to apply his film work from throughout the week by jumping the deep cross that the Redskins love to run out of this look.

Just as in life, in football sometimes you do the wrong thing for the right reasons.

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The guy with crappy eye discipline gets torched by Hankerson on the post, while the other safety bites on the cross and gets beaten to the corner. Both guys are really open by NFL standards and Griffin just has to pick which one to throw to. He chose Hankerson and absolutely uncorked a gorgeous deep ball that hit the wideout perfectly in stride for a touchdown.

Obviously, I cherry-picked all these plays to help prove the points I was trying to make (which were that the Redskins offense didn’t change that much and that RGIII is better than Rex Grossman), but if you just watch the tape you’ll see how little the Redskins’ fundamental offensive concepts actually changed from 2011 to 2012. This wasn’t the 2011 Broncos completely shelving their offense for Tim Tebow. This was putting a unique talent in a proven system and letting him take it a new direction. The Redskins didn’t scrap the race car; they just changed the driver.

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