Keys to the Game: Washington

Posted Sep 14, 2012

1. Grabbing Griffin

You’d be hard pressed to find a quarterback with a better debut than the one made by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III in last week’s Redskins’ win against New Orleans.

The No. 2 overall draft pick carved up the Saints with a nearly flawless performance, boasting a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 at halftime of that game. When all was said and done, Griffin became the first signal caller in league history to debut with 300-plus passing yards, two or more touchdown passes and no interceptions.

Griffin’s final stat line: 19-of-26 for 320 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions for a rating of 139.9. He also chipped in 42 rushing yards on 10 carries.

Of course, the Saints were working at a deficit with no real film to watch on how Washington intended to use Griffin. At least the Rams will have one week of game film to work from.

As most Mike Shanahan coached teams are want to do, Griffin is used on a lot of play action with rollouts and bootlegs regularly part of the repertoire. That means the Rams must be very disciplined in staying at home defensively and hope they can force Griffin into some rookie mistakes much like the errors made by Detroit’s Matthew Stafford last week.

“The thing about Robert is he’s kind of ahead of the curve as far as being a pocket passer, especially with his athleticism,” end Chris Long said. “You see some guys that just want to run and run around and he’s done a really good job thus far of trying to hone his skills as a pocket passer as well. It was really impressive this week watching him play and you do have to be cognizant of your rush lanes but other than that, you don’t want to obsess over it because it will slow you down.”

2. Slowing Morris

Another hallmark of Shanahan’s offenses is the use of a running back by committee approach that makes it difficult to stop the one cut and go rushing attack he prefers. It might drive fantasy football players crazy but Shanahan has a way of unearthing running backs and turning them into productive NFL players.

This year’s version of Olandis Gary or Mike Anderson or, if he really takes off, Terrell Davis could be Alfred Morris. Morris emerged out of nowhere as a rookie from Florida Atlantic to claim the starting job over incumbents Roy Helu and Evan Royster.

Morris rewarded Shanahan’s confidence with 28 carries for 96 yards and two touchdowns.

Last week against Detroit, the Lions finished with just 83 yards on the ground but had an average of 4.6 yards per attempt. Part of that success was predicated on a defensive game plan that openly invited Detroit to run the ball.

This week, the Rams will almost certainly have more focus on stopping the run. Like with Griffin, the defense must be disciplined against Washington’s run scheme. Shanahan’s offenses want to run it wide and wait for someone to get out of position then hit a single cutback for big gains.

“You want to be disciplined but you don’t want to let them dictate everything to you,” Long said. “You do have to try to dictate the tempo of the way things are going to be up front to them. But it does create problems for defenses. When everybody starts running sideways, all hell can break loose. But you do have to be disciplined but don’t let it take you out of being fast.”

3. More Line Dancing

The Rams had a big question mark at left guard last week as many wondered who would get the start – rookie Rokevious Watkins or Robert Turner. But none of it mattered much as the offensive line suffered some more injuries last week in Detroit.

Injuries to Watkins, left tackle Rodger Saffold and center Scott Wells forced the Rams to make a roster move in bringing back utility man Quinn Ojinnaka. Turner will step in at center for Wells and Ojinnaka appeared poised to get the call at left guard.

The good news, for the Rams, though, is the quick recovery of Saffold, who returned to practice on a limited basis Wednesday but finished out the week and looks likely to start against the Redskins.

Considering Washington’s pass rushing firepower and the love of the blitz possessed by coordinator Jim Haslett, the Rams’ reconfigured line will have a tough task on its hands on Sunday.

Last week, the protection for quarterback Sam Bradford was solid, though he was sacked three times. This week, the Redskins bring premiere pass rushers in Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan in addition to the exotic blitzes Haslett prefers.

No matter who lines up on the line, the onus will fall on that front five to keep Bradford protected.

“You look at what they did last week against New Orleans – they got after them pretty good,” Bradford said. “Their pass rush, those guys on the edge are big, physical, athletic pass rushers. It seemed like they gave the New Orleans wide receivers some problems last week playing some tight man coverage. I think they probably made (Saints QB) Drew (Brees) hold onto the ball a little longer than he would have liked to. They got after him pretty good, so we’re definitely up for a challenge this week. We’re going to have to be very good with our communication as far as blitzes. They like to bring pressure. Tuned in pre-snap, keys, tells, everything like that. There’s no doubt that we’re in for a challenge this week.”

4. Rev Up the Run

One way for a remixed line to get some chemistry and continuity is to run the ball effectively, something the Rams are committed to offensively regardless of how many defenders are in the box.

The Rams pounded away against a stout Detroit defense last week and finished with 78 yards on 27 carries, an average of just 2.9 yards per attempt. Running back Steven Jackson found particularly tough sledding as he carried 21 times for 53 yards though he found some room in the screen game with four catches for 31 yards.

Rookie Daryl Richardson looked sharp on his two carries for 20 yards though one came on third and long with Detroit’s defense looking for the pass.

Haslett knows Jackson well and will almost certainly still gear up his defense to slow him down. Middle linebacker London Fletcher is seemingly ageless and will be the guy charged with the task of slowing Jackson and the running game.

If the Rams can get the ground game up to par and wear down the Redskins, it not only keeps Griffin on the sideline but could allow for some big plays in the passing game via play action.

“We just kind of put ourselves in a tough spot,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “We didn’t have a lot of success running the ball on first down which puts you in a tough spot. Eight man fronts and penetration got us a little bit, the noise probably hurt us a little bit but this week it’s about getting back to basics. Fundamentals, alignments, coming off the ball, targets, things like that and (last week) is not our standard. We think we can get back to it this weekend.”

5. Third Down Woes

While Fisher didn’t place much emphasis on what happened during the preseason, there was one area that he was consistently not pleased with in the four exhibition contests.

On both sides of the ball, the Rams struggled through the preseason to keep drives alive on offense and get off the field on defense.

Things didn’t improve much last week against Detroit, especially on offense. The Rams converted just four of 12 opportunities on third down and allowed the Lions to convert on four-of-nine chances on their third downs.

The Rams appeared to make some strides against the Lions, converting their first two third downs but then missed on seven in a row before getting another. Then, of course, they missed on the most important conversion late in the game with a chance to move the chains then run the clock down before booting a game winning field goal.

In his assessment of the offense, Fisher again pointed to third downs as a negative mark, making a point to show that his team’s struggles on first and second down set up some long third down opportunities.

It’s an area on both sides that will need to improve for the Rams to get a win this week.

“We weren’t as good as we would have liked to have been on third down,” Fisher said. “We had seven or eight third downs over third-and-seven plus and those are difficult to convert.”