PITTSBURGH — There is little Robert Griffin III hasn't done in his first two months in the NFL, from compiling the league's top completion percentage to leading quarterbacks in rushing. The rookie spawned a new meme, Griffining, and returned from a concussion to deliver the longest run by a quarterback in 16 years.
Then he ran a pass route Sunday at Heinz Field.
No, that's not a misprint.
After an unrelenting early-season string of big hits, the Washington Redskins preached protection to Griffin. Run out of bounds instead of going for the extra yard. Slide, don't dive. Throw the ball away. Avoid contact. Play smart.
But in the second quarter of the 27-12 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Griffin found himself alone, exposed and, eventually, belted during an unusual trick play.
"I've run that play a lot of times," coach Mike Shanahan said, "and quarterbacks have walked in."
The Redskins use an imaginative series of formations, from the pistol to a four-man backfield, to take advantage of Griffin's transformational ability to run and throw. The offense, though, is short on speed with receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Fred Davis, the top two playmakers who don't wear a Roman numeral on the back of their jerseys, sidelined by injury.
Still, the play represented a departure from efforts in recent weeks to shield Griffin from needless contact.
Facing 3rd-and-4 on their 43-yard line, usually a short pass, Griffin scamper or an option run would gobble up the yardage. None of those calls came. Griffin flipped the ball to Joshua Morgan as he rolled right. The quarterback, meanwhile, sprinted downfield in front of the Steelers' bench.
Shanahan expected the Steelers to be in man-to-man on the play. They were in zone. That was a problem.
Morgan, who spent time at quarterback at H.D. Woodson High School in the District, lofted the ball across the field and through the raindrops toward Griffin. After the game, Shanahan expressed surprise the receiver could throw that far.
The coach, the quarterback and the receiver noted the play's success in practice. Left unsaid, of course, was the "success" came against the Redskins' defense ranked 32nd in the league against the pass.
"Usually he's wide open," Morgan said. "I gave him a chance to go up and get it. He was right up under it."
Morgan seemed mystified as to why the play didn't work.
Griffin slowed, then jumped for the ball around the 20-yard line. Cornerback Ike Taylor swatted it away. An instant later, free safety Ryan Clark, running full speed, hammered Griffin around the shoulder pads. The opportunity for a free shot at an unprotected quarterback is a defensive fantasy.
A yellow flag joined the tangle of players: Griffin had pushed off. The Steelers declined the penalty.
"I got hit in the face. He ran into me. We were all pass-interfering everybody, so it doesn't matter," Griffin said.
The gimmick play faded into the raw afternoon of dropped passes and plodding offense for the Redskins, among the raindrops and yellow ponchos and cold wind blowing through the stadium toward the confluence of the Allegheny and Ohio rivers.
"I don't think," Griffin said, "that was the turning point in the game by any stretch."
Clark's hit on Griffin remained, shot around the Internet in video clips that drew winces and questions. The Steelers knocked Griffin to the ground 10 times, the same number of hits he's taken in each of the previous two weeks. It's a vast improvement over the 28-hit battering the Cincinnati Bengals delivered last month.
Why put the Griffin in position to risk another hit? Practice success of the play was the repeated answer.
"It just gives you an idea of what type of athlete he is," Shanahan said. "If it was man coverage, no one would have been anywhere by him."
Instead, the trickery amounted to one more shot for Griffin in a season filled with them.
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