Giving a mandate to produce immediate results in light of the king’s ransom traded for RGIII in the 2012 NFL draft (the Rams received three first-round picks and a second rounder), former Skins’ offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan radically morphed his zone-stretch, play action-based offense to integrate many of the ‘spread’ elements RGIII ran on his way to a Heisman-winning season at Baylor University. Forced to create an offense tailored to Griffin’s skill set from scratch in a single offseason, Shanahan fashioned a hybrid offense that merged the base concepts learned under his father’s (former Washington head coach Mike Shanahan) tutelage with traditional ‘college’ concepts (all of which are now run by current NFL coaches including Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson) such as option football using a ‘read man’, run/pass options, and a variety of shotgun/ pistol formations that utilized a ‘full house’ backfield look.
Griffin’s rookie campaign exceeded the wildest expectations, with the first-year signal caller throwing for 3,200 yards and 20 touchdowns while adding 815 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. The Redskins finished with a 10-6 record, winning their first NFC East title since 2007 before eventually falling to the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the NFL playoffs. After the playoff loss RGIII revealed he had been playing on a torn lateral collateral ligament (suffered in a week 14 overtime win over the Baltimore Ravens) that would eventually require surgery, starting a precipitous downward spiral.
RGIII’s once promising career ended the 2015 season in ignominy, spending the entire season as the Washington Redskins’ third-string quarterback behind starter Kirk Cousins and backup Colt McCoy. The NFC Rookie of the Year's fall from grace has been well-documented (poor leadership skills, a laissez faire approach to film study, and lack of trust from Redskins’ head coach Jay Gruden), but what did the electric playmaker look like in his award-winning rookie campaign? How did the Baylor product walk onto the field and immediately put up elite numbers? Let’s put on the tape to find out.
A major component of RGIII’s initial success (and downfall) can be attributed to his use in the run game. In addition to his tried-and-true zone stretch, Shanahan integrated a variety of inside zone-based concepts including Inside Zone and the Triple Option that took advantage of Griffin’s’ exceptional ability to make the correct decision when ‘reading off’ a defender.
The 2012 Redskins’ bread and butter between-the-tackles run concept was basic Inside Zone with a backside read of an unblocked defensive player (usually a defensive end or stand-up outside linebacker). The idea behind the concept is simple; leave a box player unblocked to rebalance numbers at the line of scrimmage in the offense’s favor. Anytime an offense can put a blocker on every defender at the point of attack, the play will likely lead to positive yardage. Due to Griffin’s natural speed and athleticism, as well as his familiarity with the play concept from his college days, Inside Zone proved to be exceptionally successful.
Inside zone is likely the simplest zone concept to block and run. Each offensive lineman is assigned a certain ‘area’ to block. If there is a defender in that area (known as ‘covered’) block him using zone technique (short lateral/45 degree step towards the play, aiming for the defender’s outside number). If there is no defender in that area (known as ‘uncovered’), start with a lateral step and read the next near defender. If the defender moves outside (Figure 1) climb to the second level looking for a linebacker. If the defender moves inside (Figure 2), double team him by engaging the near shoulder, getting hip-to-hip with the other blocker, and moving the eyes to the second level in case a linebacker shows (note there are MANY ways to teach inside zone blocking technique; each coach has his/hers own preference).
The running back will read the blocks of an interior defensive linemen (these rules vary by coach) to determine which hole to hit. Generally the read moves the tailback's eyes from playside B-Gap, to playside A-gap, to backside A-gap.
The ‘option’ component of the play comes when the offense elects to leave the backside (away from the play) EMLOS (End Man on Line Of Scrimmage) unblocked, allowing the quarterback to read the defender’s movement at the mesh point. The quarterback has two choices with the read:
- If the read man pinches inside to play the running back, pull the ball and run outside through the area the defender has vacated.
- If the defender stays wide to play the quarterback bootleg, hand off to the running back, eliminating the chance of the read man chasing the play down from behind.
In our first example the Redskins’ offense comes out in a balanced formation, using 12 personnel (number of running backs and tight ends) from the Pistol formation. The read man is the 6i defensive end (#84) aligned over the inside shoulder of the tight end.
Remember, if the read man holds his ground by staying square to the line of scrimmage Griffin will give to the tailback running Inside Zone. If the read man pinches inside, Griffin will pull the ball and run through the area the defender just vacated.
Focus on the read defender in the GIF below:
Let's slow down the tape to watch the read again.
Notice how the defensive end not only pinches inside, but turns his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage. He has put his body in a position where he cannot turn his shoulders and hips to run with the quarterback should he pull the ball. Griffin makes a quick, decisive read and uses his athleticism to cut inside the cornerback for six.
In our next example Shanahan runs the same concept out of 20 personnel with a twist. The read man is the ‘Jack’ rusher in the Cowboy’s 3-4 defense, Pro Bowl defensive end/linebacker Damarcus Ware (#94). The offense will provide a blocker for the quarterback should he pull the ball and run by using the H-back to ‘arc block’, moving inside-to-out across the formation and attacking the first threat to his inside shoulder after the snap.
On paper the Cowboys should have this play stopped, as Ware and the WILL (#59) execute a ‘scrap exchange’ in which they switch gap responsibilities after the snap. Ware will now squeeze inside to play the B-gap, while the WILL shoots outside to play the C-Gap. Watch both switch gaps post-snap below:
The WILL makes a mistake coming straight downhill, rather than widening to push the ball carrier back inside as he is now the ‘force’ player. The defender’s downhill path allows the left tackle to engage him after coming off the double team, creating a wide alley for Griffin to hit. The H-Back walls off the safety while the wide receiver pins the cornerback inside, creating another easy six points.
Later in the season the Redskins took the inside concept one step further, using three skill players in the backfield to run triple option out of a ‘full house’ formation. While triple option has many moving parts, the play is very simple when broken down into components. Think of it as Inside Zone AND Speed Option in the same play. The quarterback has two reads to make:
- The initial inside zone give/pull read on the EMLOS
- A keep/pitch read on the alley defender if the quarterback pulls the ball
Griffin starts the play by reading the left defensive end (#72). When the defender pinches inside to play the run RGIII will pull the ball and move on to the next part of the play, the speed option. Generally the read man on the speed option will be the WILL (#59) in this spot, however because the H-Back (#35) is executing an arc block the read should be the cornerback (#20). By reading two defenders the offense has again created a numbers advantage at the point of attack.
If the speed option read man attacks Griffen he will pitch the ball to the tailback running fly motion on his outside shoulder. If the read man widens with the fly motion, Griffin will turn upfield through the alley with only a safety to beat.
The left defensive end pinches inside, likely playing the backside scrape exchange game we saw in the previous example.
RGIII correctly pulls the ball and enters the option phase of the play, moving his eyes upfield to the cornerback. Because the second read man has widened with the tailback’s fly motion, Griffin turns the ball upfield for a first down.
A second concept that shows up repeatedly on RGIII’s 2012 game tape is the popular RPO, or run/pass option. Shanahan wisely featured run/pass options in the Redskin’s offense because like inside zone with a backside read, Griffen experienced great success running the concept at Baylor.
Also known as ‘packaged’ plays, RPOs have been run at the high school and college level for several years. The concept worked its way up to the NFL-level over the last few seasons, starting with teams like the Bears, Panthers, Packers, and Chiefs.
The idea is surprisingly simple; merge a pass play and run play into a single concept. The offensive line will run block while the receivers and tight ends run pass routes. The quarterback will decide whether to hand off to the running back or throw a pass to the receivers based on the action of a single ‘read’ defender. The goal is to put the read defender in a pass-run conflict by forcing them to choose between their run or pass responsibility, making them wrong no matter what they do.
RPOs work particularly well in a no-huddle, hurry-up offense as they allow the quarterback to make quick, simple decisions without the need to make complicated line calls and pre-snap coverage reads. The passing aspect of the play allows the offense to get the ball to playmakers in space, as the pass routes consist of quick-game slants, hitches, and seams that are a broken-tackle away from going for six. Most packaged plays do not utilize intermediate or vertical routes as the offensive line may not block further than five yards downfield (a controversial issue within the coaching community as this rule is rarely enforced).
In RGIII's first game as a pro former Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan dialed up several RPOs to take advantage of his rookie signal-callers comfort with the concept.
Our first example combines split zone, a variation of inside zone in which an H-back Arc blocks across the formation, with a wide receiver Bubble Screen. The read man is free safety Kenny Vaccaro, who has crept up to linebacker-level to run blitz.
Vaccaro takes the decision out of the play, run blitzing just before the snap, leaving the bubble screen with numbers on the outside for an easy 9-yard gain.
Our next example occurs on the very next play, with the split zone and bubble screen flipped to the opposite side of the field. The read man becomes the SAM (#57).
The wide receiver already has the SAM outleveraged to the outside. Because the linebacker stays flat-footed at the snap, Griffin again makes the easy throw for six yards and a first down.
Our final example does not include a run play. Instead, a Bubble Screen and Rocket Screen are packaged to each side of the play. Griffin will read the field (wide-side) safety to determine which screen to throw. If the safety flows inside at the snap, throw the Bubble Screen as the unblocked defender is eight yards off the line of scrimmage and will be forced to tackle in space. If the safety remains flat-footed or follows the bubble motion outside, throw the Rocket Screen as the offense will have numbers at the point of attack.
The safety's pre-snap creep again provides Griffin with a clearly-defined throw. The slot receiver does a great job getting just enough of the cornerback to push him wide of the play, with the right tackle and right guard picking up the SAM and MIKE. Watch the center get 15-yards downfield 'looking for work'. Great hustle and execution for another low-risk first down.
The effective ground game created by the duo of Alfred Morris and RGIII opened up several opportunities for play action pass concepts over the course of the season. The Skins’ diverse running game created defender eye conflict, making teams particularly susceptible to play action as it piled on one more element that had to be defended.
We'll start our look at play action with a variation of a West Coast concept popularized by John Gruden’s QB Camp grease board work with Andrew Luck, ‘Spider Y-2 Banana’.
Facing 1st and goal on the nine-yard line Shanahan dialed up the common ‘flood’ concept to take advantage of Griffin’s mobility and ability to throw on the run. The play is not unique in its design; every team has something similar in their playbook, but it demonstrates RGIII’s ability to throw on the run and read a simple progression.
The concept is designed to create a three-level flood to the offense's right-side using a shallow, snag route, and flat route. Linebackers coming downhill to their run fits off the play action should be late in getting to their coverage responsibilities on both the shallow and the flat route. The progression is read:
The routes work together to create a three-man triangle on the defense, ensuring it will play well against a variety of man and zone pass coverages.
Before moving on the play itself, take note of two details that lead to the touchdown reception:
1. Watch the WILL (linebacker just below the left hash) react to the play action. Because he takes an aggressive step towards the line of scrimmage from the play fake, he is unable to collision the X wide receiver as he enters his shallow. This allows the receiver to run his route unmolested across the middle of the field. He MUST be collisioned to slow him down and disrupt the play’s timing.
2. Because the defense is in Cover 2 zone-under, the cornerbacks are responsible for any routes to the flat. This leaves the safety to pick up anything inside-breaking by the Z receiver (bottom of the screen). Watch how the inside-breaking snag route creates space for the shallow to enter underneath. Great play design and route running as the safety would be in position to play a ball to the shallow unless he is cleared out.
Let's slow it down to watch the WILL and boundary safety.
Griffin’s first read is the fullback to the flat, although the read is taking away by a combination of the SAM and a hard corner. His next read is the snag route, but if RGIII recognizes Cover 2 post-snap he knows the shallow is coming open as the safety has been run off (an example by coverage recognition and film study is so vital to a quarterback’s success). It’s impossible to say if Griffin moved straight to the shallow (his third read) from the flat, although I think he did based on his head movement.
In addition to red zone and short down-and-distance play action concepts, Washington took several vertical shots downfield in positive down/distance situations. The offense hit two long touchdowns off play action in a 38-31 victory over divisional opponent Dallas in week 12.
In 20 personnel with twin receivers to the field (wide-side of the field), the offense hit their first big gain of the game through the air using an X-Cross concept (a variation of the Air Raid’s famous Y-Cross). The route combination features a deep crossing route from the X receiver, a seam route designed to clear out the middle of the field by the Y receiver, and a flat route by the H-back. The receiver at the bottom of the screen runs a quick hitch which acts as a hot route will also keeping the cornerback from coming inside to squeeze the throw to the crossing route. Notice the triangle created by the routes
The Cowboys are caught in a fire zone blitz, playing 3-deep, 3-under coverage. Note the safety at the bottom of the screen at the snap of the ball. Look at both his depth and distance from the hash. Because the safety is playing a SCIF technique due to the blitz, he must carry anything vertical by the #2 receiver. Move your eyes back to the where the deep crosser makes the reception. Without the seam route to clear out the SCIF defender, he would be in great position to make a play on the ball.
Next, move to the WILL (the only linebacker not on the line of scrimmage). Like the safety, he is playing a SCIF technique. His first responsibility is to cushion the seam against any vertical route before breaking on anything short to the flat. The H-back’s flat route pulls him up just enough to allow the crossing route to hit over his head.
This play is a great example of why good coaches do not design routes in a vacuum; they must work together to stretch defenders and clear space.
RGIII’s progression is likely:
- Peak the seam
- Deep Cross
- Flat route
Because the seam route clears out the SCIF defender to the left side of the defense while the flat route pulls up the SCIF defender to the right, RGIII easily threads the needle for a 60-yard touchdown.
Washington’s second long touchdown came off a two-man Pin concept, combining a post with an in-breaking route. The H-back cut blocks at the line of scrimmage to sell the play action, then heads to the flat as a check down. In this example we can clearly see how the offense’s backfield flow causes defenders to use poor eye discipline, resulting in another explosive play.
Against split safeties the offense wants to force the deep left defender to jump the dig route, allowing the post route to hit over his head. The play action is designed to slow the safety's read of his run/pass key, putting him in conflict to slow his drop to the deep half.
The play action not only holds the safety to his spot, but gets him to take a step downhill towards his run fit while the post route runs right by him. Take a look from a different angle.
The corner has little chance of making a play here as he is playing with outside leverage against an in-breaking route
In our final segment, we’ll look at RGIII in the traditional drop-back pass game. Our first example is a variant of the Smash-Post article we broke down in a previous OBR film study. Facing first and ten just outside the red zone, Shanahan dials up a route combination designed to take it all in one play. The only difference between Hue Jackson’s Smash-Post and this play is the players running the post and hitch are flipped (the outside receiver will run the post with the inside receiver running an out-breaking route.
Shanahan puts the receivers running the smash concept at the top of the screen in a stack alignment to create the matchup he wants. By releasing the inside receiver outside, Shanahan ensures the corner route is played by the deep safety, a big win for the offense.
Against edge pressure from the boundary (short-side of the field) RGIII should know he has the corner route matched-up with the deep safety. Take a token look to the middle of the field and let it rip as soon as the receiver stems his route to the corner. There is no progression here as this is a throw dictated by a personnel matchup. RGIII shows great anticipation releasing the ball before his receiver has made his cut to the corner and drops it right into the basket for another easy six points.
In our final example we will watch RGIII make a progression-based read running another West Coast classic, the Drive concept, or 2 Jet Flanker Drive (the Steelers run the heck out of this play to put the ball in Antonio Brown’s hands in space). The offense comes out in an Empty formation with three receivers to the field and two to the boundary. Against many teams the Empty formation is an automatic pass check, however because RGIII is a running threat the defense must account for a designed quarterback run here.
The quarterback’s read will vary based on the coverage. On this play the Buccs shows their base Tampa 2, with two deep safeties, hard corners playing the flats, and a middle linebacker dropping to protect the open middle of the field.
The progression looks to be out, dig, shallow, although you could make a case for wheel/dig/shallow based on the coverage (it is impossible to say with 100% certainty what the read is without the play call). Because the defense is in a Tampa 2, the progression becomes a simple hi-lo read of the seam defender to the left side of the defense. If the defender gains depth to cushion the dig route, throw the shallow underneath. If the defender jumps the shallow, throw over his head to the dig.
The wheel and digs routes force the seam defender to drop, opening up the shallow route underneath. On the other side of the field, notice how the out route by the #2 receiver pulls the opposite seam defender away from the shallow, creating even more room for a catch-and-run.
While RGIII is rightly viewed as a broken reclamation project, the quarterback has achieved success at the NFL-level (something few Browns’ quarterbacks can say), albeit for a single season. It’s impossible to say what role injuries, lack of preparation, and inability to communicate with teammates and coaches played in his fall from grace without being in the locker room, but Hue Jackson seems to believe there is talent to be developed. Regardless of what happens in the NFL draft this April, a confident RGIII should bring the fan base a level of excitement they haven’t seen from the quarterback position in a long time.