OWINGS MILLS, Md. — It’s been a long time since Corey Graham played against an option offense.
The Ravens cornerback, a six-year veteran, hasn’t seen the option since his college football days at New Hampshire. On Sunday, he’ll have to remember the fundamentals he learned back then so he can help the Ravens defend Washington Redskins star quarterback Robert Griffin III.
“It’s tough, it’s different,” Graham said. “You haven’t seen it pretty much since college. A lot of different reads, a lot of assignment football. Guys have to make sure they read their keys. It’s a tough challenge, but you have to be prepared for it and make plays.”
Out of the pistol formation, Griffin and the Redskins offense can play power football inside, run the ball outside and then suck the defense in with a play-action fake before hitting an open receiver downfield.
Adding to the problems Baltimore could face is the fact Griffin has been one of the best quarterbacks at protecting the ball. Among quarterbacks who have played in every game, Griffin is tied with New England’s Tom Brady for fewest interceptions (four) and just set the rookie record for rushing yards by a quarterback with 714 in 12 games.
“We’ve got to contain him,” Ravens safety Ed Reed said in a conference call. “We have to get him on the ground and not allow him to run. But that’s like telling Superman not to fly. But he’s a pocket passer as well as a scrambling quarterback. You’ve got to maintain coverage as DBs, and you’ve got to contain him and hold him in the pocket as much as you can, but make sure that you get to him and tackle him.”
Griffin’s skill set has been put to good use in the pistol formation, and Monday’s win against the New York Giants was a good example. When running back Alfred Morris started grinding out yards up the middle, Griffin would then keep the ball on a read option, bouncing the play wide.
Then there were times he would fake the ball to Morris, drawing defenders in, before throwing over the top to an open target.
“It’s just a little nuance to create confusion amongst the defense — which way we’re going, what plays we’re running,” Griffin said. “But it’s not just the pistol offense. We run our entire offense out of that pistol look, so it’s really just our offense.”
For years, it was assumed the option had no place in the NFL. Defenders were too big, too strong and too fast for that kind of simplicity. Griffin has helped change that school of thought, showing that it can work at this level.
“It’s proven they can do it and be more than competitive with that system,” Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain said. “It’s going to be a unique challenge.”
To defend this style of offense, discipline is key. If one person misses a defensive assignment, then Griffin can make a team pay.
“We have to be a disciplined defense going into Sunday’s game,” Ravens safety Bernard Pollard said. “We have to practice it throughout this week and have a great week of practice. For us, we have to hit him. Hit whoever has the ball.”
The Ravens’ defense has performed better in the past five weeks than it did to begin the season. Over this span, the Ravens have allowed averages of 16.2 points and 333.4 total yards.
Baltimore has held its past two opponents to less than100 rushing yards each, though it faces a stiffer test in Washington, which leads the NFL in rushing yards per outing (167.2).
Throughout the year, the Ravens have been vulnerable against the run, which saw Houston’s zone running scheme gash them for 181 yards on the ground. Washington runs a similar scheme, though out of the pistol, making it quicker to hand the ball off and easier to disguise plays.
“When you have a quarterback that can do what he does, it makes you have to game plan for him too,” McClain said. “Most teams don’t game plan too much for the quarterback running. He’s always like that extra guy you don’t really calculate for. But you have to calculate for him. He opens up a lot of things for everyone else.”Though the offense is something college teams use more often than the professionals, Griffin and the Redskins could soon change the landscape of the NFL.
With more quarterbacks entering the league with the ability to run the zone read option, Griffin could be setting a trend for years to come. And this is something Ravens coach John Harbaugh has taken notice of.
“It’s a unique twist in the NFL and [Griffin‘s] got a unique skill set,” Harbaugh said. “You have to be able to do the things he does. You’ve got to be able to run the option. Not every quarterback has that skill set, but every quarterback is unique. You try to build around your guys, but sure, it’s different.”