For the first time all season, a close game on Sunday allowed the Washington Redskins to utilize every section of their offensive playbook, working in the play-action pass, the zone-read option, unbalanced lines and even the triple option.
The Redskins were able to keep their play-calling balanced, running the ball 40 times for 209 yards and throwing it 32 times for 291 yards in their 30-24 overtime victory over the San Diego Chargers.
“I think it takes everybody,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said Tuesday. “The offensive line did a great job of keeping me upright the entire game and giving me passing lanes. The receivers were where they needed to be and they made the big-time catches. Pierre [Garçon] bailed me out a couple times on a couple throws. There were other times I had to be on the money, and they made the plays. I just think it takes everybody, and it’s just getting that flow of the game — and we got into that.”
The Redskins’ consistency within their drives was important. Their first series lasted 16 plays and spanned a 9:03 stretch in the first quarter, but it ended in a blocked 25-yard field goal. Later, they put together their most prolonged scoring drive of the season, running 7:45 off the clock over 11 plays before fullback Darrel Young ran one yard for a touchdown with 14:17 remaining.
The key? Converting on third downs, a weakness earlier in the season. The Redskins picked up a first down 32 percent of the time in the first four games but have converted 55 percent of the time in the last four games, including a 12-for-17 effort on Sunday — a season-high 70.6 percent.
“You would think going [12-for-17], you would have a lot of short third-down conversions, and we didn’t really,” Griffin said. “We had some third-and-8s, third-and-10s, and guys just executed.”
Griffin threw the ball nine times on third down, completing six of those passes. He connected with tight end Jordan Reed for 14 yards on the opening drive, which ended in a blocked 25-yard field goal, and then found Garçon for 38 yards on a fly route on third-and-12 on the first drive of the third quarter.
Left tackle Trent Williams said there’s been “no magic trick,” but rather the players have been “just learning from mistakes and trying to fix mistakes from the [previous] week.”
Coach Mike Shanahan, meanwhile, said that the recent success has been about players fulfilling their responsibilities.
“We’ve talked about third downs,” Shanahan said. “It may be a third-down play, it may be a dropped ball, but the consistency with 11 guys playing together is usually the key.”
Running back Alfred Morris carried the ball 25 times on Sunday, marking the first time he has cracked 20 carries all season.
The Redskins were built as a run-oriented team, from incorporating athletic offensive linemen capable of operating within a zone-blocking scheme to adding receivers who are physical enough to set and hold blocks downfield.
Simply asking Griffin to throw the ball frequently doesn’t play to his strengths. The Redskins’ coaching staff — namely, Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan — made an effort to reconstruct the offense to suit Griffin’s abilities shortly after drafting him last April, hoping that his ability to run the ball would add a greater wrinkle to their game plans.
Much of last year was a learning process, with the coaches and Griffin each developing an understanding of what to expect from the other. After the Week 10 bye, the rough edges of a give-and-take had been polished: Through Morris’ performance, and Griffin’s own ability to run the ball a half-dozen times a game, the play-action pass became the Redskins’ most consistent weapon, mixed within the varying looks of a dropback, a bootleg or a read option play.
Griffin attempted more than 30 passes only four times last season, three of which were Redskins losses. This year, Griffin has been asked to throw the ball more than 30 times in seven of the Redskins’ eight games. In the eighth, against the Chicago Bears, he had 29 passing attempts.
Facing so many quick deficits earlier this season, the Redskins couldn’t play to their strengths. Defenses didn’t have to respect the threat of the play-action pass when knowing the Redskins weren’t running the ball, which in turn limited the frequency with which receivers were able to get separation downfield.
But by keeping the game close early, as Washington did Sunday, the play-calling can be balanced. Whatever weaknesses the Redskins have, then, aren’t clearly exposed.
“I think it helps a lot,” Griffin said. “In other games, we’ve had opportunities to kind of get into that second-level throwing — second and third level — and it just hasn’t worked out. But everything was clicking for us this past week, and that’s what you need.”