Late on the afternoon of Oct. 21, Robert Griffin III wheeled his suitcase from one end of MetLife Stadium’s home sideline to the other, down the tunnel and out to the Washington Redskins’ bus. He left in his wake an air of disappointment. His fourth-quarter magic that day was not enough to prevent the Washington Redskins’ 27-23 loss to the New York Giants, a defeat from which it took his team a month to recover.
Griffin also left quite an impression on the victorious Giants. Defensive end Justin Tuck told New York reporters this week: “Until I exit stage right, it seems like he’s going to be a fixture in my dreams and nightmares.”
That’s true if Griffin’s first run through the NFC East is any indication. On Monday night, though, the Giants will become the first team to play Griffin for the second time. How they and the rest of the league adjust to his abilities — and how the Redskins adjust to those adjustments — will determine how high Griffin rises during the final five games of his rookie season.
“It’s always different the second time,” Griffin said this week. “They kind of got a feel for the way we play. We got a feel for the way they play. It’s just a matter of who’s going to show up on Monday night.”
Griffin terrorized the entire NFC East in his debuts against Washington’s three rivals. In the loss to New York and in wins over Philadelphia and Dallas, he was 54 of 71 passing (76.1 percent) for 256.3 yards per game, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also averaged 7.5 yards on 27 rushes. His passer rating was 138.4.
“I was in awe of RG3 and the plays he was making,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the Redskins’ Thanksgiving Day victory.
The Redskins’ offense gained a season-high 480 yards against the Giants in their October meeting, including 248 rushing yards on 38 attempts. Four turnovers undermined that domination, but from a schematic standpoint, the Redskins enter Monday’s rematch confident they can replicate that success.
Griffin’s speed around the edge, running back Alfred Morris’ vision and footwork in the outside zone scheme and quality blocking propelled the Redskins to their best rushing total in five years.
“The straight runs that had nothing to do with anything else were just as effective as the option or the dive option or whatever you want to call it,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “There’s a lot of things for us to improve on and defend.”
Defending Griffin in the running game, though, means defending the zone read. That’s the one of the special elements he enabled offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to add to the Redskins’ offense this year.
Washington’s zone-read option was particularly effective in the first game against New York. The Redskins averaged 7.0 yards on 16 zone-read rushes, and half of those attempts gained at least 4 yards.
That was a significant accomplishment against the Giants’ athletic defensive ends. Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora challenge the zone read concept on the edge.
“When you’ve got athletes like they do, it’s not a real easy read,” Shanahan said. “They can play both [the quarterback and running back]. They can really confuse your quarterback. We got them a bunch in the game, but they got us a bunch, too, especially in the second half.”
Shanahan referred to how New York limited the Redskins to only 21 rushing yards on seven zone-read carries after halftime.
And Pierre-Paul forced Griffin into a critical fumble on a zone-read play in the fourth quarter. He quickly closed on Griffin after Griffin faked a draw to Morris, and the tackle knocked the ball out.
“They can adjust and they can turn direction pretty well, but as long as you’re decisive in the read, it doesn’t really matter,” Griffin said. “A couple times they caught me in between, and that hurt us. But other than that, it’s just about making a decisive read one way or the other.”
Other Redskins share that mentality. They believe in the scheme, but at this point in the season, with the stakes as high as they are, it’s about execution.
“We pretty much know what they do, and they pretty much know what we do, so there’s not a lot of surprises,” Shanahan said. “It’s about giving guys a chance to make a play. We’ll see who makes the most plays on Monday.”
• Rich Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.
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