ASHBURN, Va. -- They ran linebackers at the quarterback, forcing him to hand off -- even if he wasn’t going to do so already. They crashed the end on the running back and sent the outside linebacker wide. Just in case Robert Griffin III kept the ball.
It’s what defenses have done against the Washington Redskins' zone read looks this season. It’s also similar to what they tried last season.
There’s a difference: For starters, opposing defenses don’t yet trust that Griffin, coming off knee surgery, can hurt them running the ball consistently, unlike a year ago. He’s only carried the ball twice for 11 yards out of the zone read compared to 43 for 344 yards in 2012. Meanwhile, running back Alfred Morris has eight carries for 27 yards out of this look after averaging 5.25 yards per carry on 61 attempts last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“People weren’t ready for it at all so it was easy at times,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “Now it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work, you’re just not shocking people like you were last year. When teams are completely committed to stopping something, I don’t care what it is, they’re going to stop it.”
Another way to stop it is by having defensive tackles like Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. On one third-quarter attempt Sunday, the Lions played it well with a safety outside in case Griffin kept the ball -- nothing new. And the end crashed on Griffin -- again, nothing new. But Suh and Fairley got off blocks from guards Kory Lichtensteiger and Chris Chester to make the stop on Morris for no gain.
A few plays earlier, Griffin kept the ball in part because it did not appear the Lions expected him to do so. Both the end and the linebacker started inside, giving Griffin the edge. There was no safety to that side either. Instead, the safety aligned in the middle of the field, sprinted over and forced Griffin’s awkward slide for a four-yard gain.
But the Redskins also managed pass plays out of this look, including a 19-yard pass to tight end Logan Paulsen off a zone read fake. On the play, the linebackers vacated their lanes and it took 1.9 seconds for them to turn and try and get back -- the same amount of time it often took last season.
Against Philadelphia, on one Morris zone read run both the end and linebacker played him to run the ball, leaving the outside free. Later in the game, all eyes were on Morris right after Griffin pulled away. Last year, eyes would be scattered, unsure who had the ball. Chaos ensued; holes opened.
Morris hopes that Griffin running it twice last week will change that.
“Now they have to respect him,” Morris said. “Now they will be more hesitant and that gives me more time to find that hole and get going before they react to it.”
But there’s a belief, too, that while defenses might not be doing anything new, they’re better at what they’re doing.
“I just think it’s more polished on the defensive front,” Paulsen said. “They’re quicker to recognize it and quicker to fit where they’re supposed to fit. Last year it was such a novelty guys were all over the place and it was hit or miss how they would fit it. That was advantageous for us. [This year] I don’t think it detracts from its effectiveness.”
The Redskins never seemed worried about how teams would adjust to the zone read. Mainly because they felt other plays would then work. Instead, their offense has sputtered too often, particularly in the first half of games.
“When you have holes other places, how automatic are you at executing those plays that attack that?” Shanahan said. “I don’t think we have been in all those areas. We’ve been a little hit or miss. “
The play won’t go away for Washington. Between Griffin’s knee and regaining his explosiveness and falling behind by large margins, the Redskins have not run it as much as last season.
“In the same way Alfred gets in a rhythm running the ball, Griffin gets in a rhythm running the ball,” Paulsen said. “He hasn’t had that opportunity. Maybe that’s not something we’ll hang our hat on this year, but I think as we go forward he’ll get more comfortable with it ... I think we want to get back to it more."