Key matchup: Griffin vs. pass rush

Robert Griffin is said to be 100 percent healed, but the Vikings would like to pressure him early to test that statement from the Redskins. Is RG3 coming back too soon?

There are some matchups in NFL games that seem too obvious. If it was over the Patriots-Broncos game, the prime matchup would be Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning. But for the Vikings and Redskins, there is going to be one player that will have all eyes on him – quarterback Robert Griffin III. Making his first appearance since Week 2 when his dislocated his ankle, Griffin is going up against one of the most improved defenses over the last month, making the ongoing battle between Griffin and the Vikings front four this week’s key matchup.

Vikings fans are no stranger to Griffin. The teams split their two starts – Washington winning 38-26 in 2012 and the Vikings winning 34-27 last year – with Griffin at the helm and he had a major impact in both games.

In the 2012 game, he completed 17 of 22 passes for 182 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but he did most of his damage with his legs, rushing 13 times for 138 yards and two scores. In last year’s meeting, the Vikings made a conscious effort not to let him run wild – holding him to 44 yards and seven rushes – but he burned the Vikings badly through the air, completing 24 of 37 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns. Two games. Six touchdowns. Not exactly the kind of numbers a defense is looking for.

Both of those games came in the middle of the season with RG3 relatively healthy. This time around, Griffin is coming off a long layoff and hasn’t tested his healing ankle in actual game conditions. That can’t be replicated in practice. He hasn’t taken a hit since mid-September, so the Vikings know that to keep him under wraps, they’re going to have to bring the heat from the outside and force RG3 to stay in the pocket and not be able to make the big splash plays that he has been known for over his career, especially against teams like the Vikings, who have struggled to contain him in both of their previous meetings.

The Vikings defense has shown a lot of improvement over the last month. It has allowed each of their last three opponents to score 17 points or less and has been consistently climbing the defensive rankings – currently checking in as the eighth-ranked defense (17th against the run and fourth against the pass).

Much of the credit for their improvement has been given to an increasingly more effective pass rush. Everson Griffin is third in the league with eight sacks and earned NFC Defensive Player of the Month. In all, 19½ of the Vikings’ 25 sacks have come from the defensive line and the pressure they are able to put on opposing quarterbacks has witnessed sacks coming in bunches, which is often the difference in winning and losing. Only Kansas City has more sacks per pass play than Minnesota and the defense has suddenly become the team’s calling card.

What gives this matchup an added dimension is the speculation that, for the second time in two years, the Redskins are pressing Griffin back into action too soon. Last year, he was recovering from ACL surgery after being left on the field too long when he was clearly far less than 100 percent and he made a situation worse when he crumpled to the ground in Washington’s playoff loss. He started the opening day game the following year, returning to action quicker than Adrian Peterson did a year earlier, and the results weren’t good early on.

There is a sense of déjà vu with his return Sunday. The Redskins have their bye week following the Minnesota game and many have speculated that, for the long-term health of RG3, getting the extra two weeks of recuperation time could be critical. The Redskins have put themselves in a position to be seriously second-guessed because, unless Griffin has a huge game, the critics will ask why the team didn’t stick with Colt McCoy – who helped Washington win a tough overtime game at Dallas on Monday.

If Griffin has any hesitance to run the ball and truly test his injured ankle to its fullest extent, the chorus of second-guessers will get louder. If he gets hurt in the game? The chorus will be deafening.

Mike Shanahan took the brunt of the heat last year when Griffin didn’t play well early and was accused of pushing him back into action too soon rather than allowing him to heal up completely before putting him on the field. The Vikings are going to be looking to contain Griffin and keep him in the pocket and, when they get the chance, they’re going to look to drop the hammer on him and make him feel their presence.

Any quarterback who gets pressured and hit often has a tendency to get a little gun shy in the pocket and will get rid of the ball sooner than he wants to in order to avoid a further beating. A quarterback who hasn’t played for a little short of two months is much more susceptible to the clock in his head going off sooner than it should.

In their first two meetings with RG3, the Vikings took the approach of trying to limit the number of big plays he produces. They didn’t achieve that goal in either game. This time around, the Vikings are going to be in attack mode, taking the same sort of aggressiveness that has made Griffin a Vikings defensive killer and flipping script on him – turning the hunter into the hunted.

There will be a lot of drama for a game pitting two 3-5 teams, but, if the Vikings defense can continue to create pressure in the pocket and get RG3 in panic mode, things could potentially go downhill quickly for the Redskins, making the battle between the Vikings front four and a rusty RG3 this week’s Matchup To Watch.

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