Breaking Down Robert Griffin III's Struggles Against the Blitz

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Breaking Down Robert Griffin III's Struggles Against the Blitz
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The idea of blitzing Robert Griffin III during his sensational rookie season in 2012 would have been considered ludicrous by many. The former Heisman Trophy winner was simply too elusive and possessed too great of a big-play threat to risk sending extra rushers at the expense of reducing coverage.

But in the NFL, things change, and they change fast. Fast forward just one season later, and it is remarkable to see how willing opponents are to send heavy pressure at Griffin.

Since Week 1 of the 2013 season, when the Philadelphia Eagles showed teams that they can stymie the post-knee surgery Griffin with the blitz, every opponent on the Washington Redskins' schedule has followed suit. Defensive coordinators are now all too aware that when challenged to combine quick reads with accurate throws, Griffin is often left wanting.

A play from the team's 27-6 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 12 showed Griffin's primary struggle under pressure.

The Washington offense was inside the red zone and faced a 3rd-and-9 at the 49ers 18-yard line. The 49ers aligned in their standard 4-2-5 nickel defense and showed a two-deep safety look. They usually rely upon a four-man rush that features stunts and twists, but defensive coordinator Vic Fangio chose to instead challenge Griffin with a blitz.

The crafty play-caller then sent seven rushers after the struggling Washington quarterback. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis blitzed the middle, while slot cornerback and former Redskins starter Carlos Rogers blitzed off the edge.

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The 49ers prepare to send seven after Griffin, who has an obvious hot read.

Even with three blitzers added to the rush, Griffin still had an easy outlet to beat the pressure.

Slot receiver Santana Moss would be his obvious hot read behind the blitz. The veteran adjusted his route to run into the void created by the slot blitz from Rogers. Simply put, Moss ran his pattern behind the pressure, which is all a hot read is.

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Santana Moss would adjust his pattern behind the blitz to become Griffin's hot read.

Once the 49ers brought the blitz, Moss was wide open behind it. Griffin had a good throwing lane to connect with his receiver for what should have been an easy conversion. But with pressure in his face, Griffin's accuracy was fatally compromised, and he missed Moss with a low, wide pass.

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The hot read was wide open behind the blitz.

 

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Pressure right at Griffin is destroying his accuracy.

 

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Griffin's throws to adjusted routes are often wayward.

This was a basic blitz adjustment that any professional starting quarterback simply has to make. That Griffin was so off-target was particularly disturbing.

His wayward throw was part of a pattern of hurried inaccuracy when faced with pressure. Clear misses of basic read adjustments like this have encouraged defensive coordinators to send six and seven-man pressures after Griffin.

But as wayward as he has been, Griffin has also not been helped by a group of pass-catchers who have struggled to escape the kind of tight man coverage played behind many blitzes. This was particularly evident during the final drive of the team's 34-27 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 10.

Trailing by seven, Griffin and his offense had moved to the Vikings 4-yard line and faced 3rd-and-goal with just 35 seconds left. The Vikings were in their base 4-3 defense and sent all three of their linebackers through the line at Griffin. They also played strict man coverage across the formation, with no safety help.

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Defenses aren't afraid to go Cover O against Griffin and his receivers.

That meant that there would be one-on-one matchups for the Redskins four primary receivers. If any of them managed to win against this Cover O alignment, they would be wide open in the void at the back of the end zone.

However, the Vikings were prepared to gamble that none of the Washington receivers would beat their single coverage. The fact that Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams was willing to take such a risk says a lot about how Griffin's pass-catchers have struggled to get free this season.

His bold ploy was rewarded when neither of Griffin's outside receivers, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss, were able to win. Furthermore, both inside targets, tight end Jordan Reed and wide receiver Pierre Garcon, ran to the same spot.

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Outside receivers are failing to beat single coverage, while inside routes are poorly designed.

This was a poorly designed route concept and gave Griffin's two favorite receivers little chance to gain separation. This meant that he had scant room to aim for when he fired a high pass to Garcon.

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Another Griffin throw against the blitz sails off the mark.

Once again, the blitz had forced him to be quick and accurate. The pressure design had also challenged Griffin's receivers to shed press coverage. None of these things happened on this key play.

Another factor that has stifled Griffin's development as a credible pro passer is his habit of staring down primary reads. Here he was looking at Garcon and Reed from the second the ball was snapped:

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Griffin is staring down receivers too often.

He simply ignored Hankerson's favorable matchup on the other side. Defenses know that as long as they initially take away Griffin's first read, their blitzes will have the time to get home.

But aside from poor execution, Griffin's response to this Cover O pressure was not aided by the team's play-calling. The decisions of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have come under scrutiny this season and with some justification.

While he is normally a great designer of plays, rather than a great play-caller, the younger Shanahan let himself down in this instance. In particular, he failed to adequately assign protection in anticipation of a blitz call by the Vikings.

Notice how running back Roy Helu Jr. (29) was faced with two blitzing linebackers. He had to make a decision about which one to block and which one would be allowed a run free at his quarterback.

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Not enough protection was assigned to the blitz.

Had Shanahan supplemented his formation with another backfield blocker, though, this nightmare dilemma could have been avoided, and Griffin would have had more time to set himself and throw.

That may seem like an observation made with the smugness afforded by hindsight, but it is not such an unfair critique. For instance, the Vikings ran the exact same blitz from the same look on the previous play.

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The Vikings had run the exact same blitz on the previous play.

Had Shanahan moved his tight end into the backfield, the Redskins would have had enough blockers to comfortably pick up this blitz. The offense often uses its tight ends in H-Back alignments for this purpose, so why not here?

Some may argue that the ploy would have taken Reed, a key playmaker for Griffin, out of the pass design. But that is not necessarily true. 

Shanahan could have put blocking tight end Logan Paulsen in the backfield and replaced Hankerson with Reed. The rookie has been split out in a wide receiver alignment near the goal line more than once this season. He has scored touchdowns against both the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears from the same position.

Like most of the issues on the team, Griffin's problems against the blitz are multi-layered.

His diminished mobility after major offseason knee surgery means that defenses are more willing to risk attacking him. They believe he is less likely to pull off a miracle of agility to escape a collapsing pocket and run at a deserted second level.

They also know that when challenged to make quick and accurate throws, Griffin will often fail, just as they know that he will be slower to adjust from his primary target to a hot read behind pressure.

Those are fundamental flaws in Griffin's performance as a pro quarterback. As serious as those issues are, they are being compounded by not enough of his receivers beating single coverage as well as some dubious decisions in play design.

The result has been a passing game that has been too easy to defend in the modern NFL, and it seems as though blitzing the quarterback is often considered the best antidote to today's passing game.

 

All screen shots courtesy of ESPN and NFL Network.

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