In the Washington Redskins game against the Giants earlier this week, Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden gushed over the performance of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.
The former Super Bowl-winning coach said that RGIII is changing the pro game because of the dynamic skill set he brings to the quarterback position.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh has noticed the same kind of impact.
"It’s a unique thing,” Harbaugh said. "It’s a unique twist in the NFL, and he’s got a unique skill set.”
RGIII’s arrival in Washington has completely altered the kind of offense the Redskins run. They are now operating almost entirely out of the spread and often use a pistol formation, where the quarterback is in shotgun with the running back lined up behind him.
The spread formation and pistol looks have long been commonplace in college football, but NFL teams haven’t typically adopted the approach – until now.
"What’s unique about it is that you don’t see it in the NFL,” linebacker Jameel McClain said. "It’s more something you see in college. It’s something that everyone thought couldn’t be done in the NFL, and they’re proving that they can do it and be very competitive, more than competitive with that system. It’s going to be a unique challenge for us.”
A common misnomer about spread offenses is that the three and four wide receiver sets tend to eliminate the running game.
The opposite is true for the Redskins.
They are the best running team in the NFL (average 167.2 yards per game), and their option attack led by Griffin is a key reason for the success. He has breakaway speed (ran a 4.41-second, 40-yard dash at the combine) and his 714 rushing yards is an NFL single-season record for a rookie quarterback.
"You try to build your offense around your players and what they’re capable of doing,” Harbaugh said. "They’ve done a really nice job of that with their quarterback, with RG III. Obviously, he’s smart. He’s got a lot of athletic ability, but he also has a lot of quarterback awareness.”
The key now for the Ravens is to figure out exactly what to do to stop him.
It’s a problem few teams have solved, especially lately.
In the last three games – all Redskins victories – Griffin has thrown for 667 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception. He has also rushed for 185 yards.
"It’s tough on everybody,” Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees said about their offense. "If you watch all the teams that they’ve played, they’ve played some darn good defenses. It’s just really a different scheme that you don’t see every week.”
Pees doesn’t plan to completely change his scheme to account for Griffin. Pees has dealt with option quarterbacks as a longtime coordinator in the college game, and the key is to avoid falling into the trap that everything needs to change.
"I’ve seen guys try to reinvent the wheel on option football,” Pees said. "I’ve coached as a defensive coordinator for eight years in college on a team that ran nothing but option football on offense. I’ve seen some defenses try to reinvent ways to stop the option, and usually I was very happy as a defensive coordinator playing with a big lead.
"You have a couple of days to prepare for it, and you just have to do it within your system.”
The other component that Pees and a number of players mentioned in terms of stopping Griffin is the importance of staying disciplined in their coverage and in their pursuit of the speedy quarterback.
"Discipline,” McClain said when asked how to stop Griffin. "Everybody is going to have a certain assignment and if one person falls off his assignment, then everything collapses. It’s definitely an understanding that we are all on the check.”
Safety Bernard Pollard had a similar response.
"We have to be disciplined at all times,” he said. "We can’t do somebody else’s job. We have to be disciplined defense going into Sunday’s game.”
Pollard also mentioned another important part of the gameplan, which is to hit Griffin whenever they have the chance. As a running quarterback, Griffin opens himself up to more big hits in the open field, which can take a toll on a quarterback.
He has already been forced out of one game this season because of a concussion.
"For us, we just got to hit him every chance we get. Just hit him,” Pollard said. "He’s a very good quarterback. I don’t take that away from him. As far as him taking that beating, he’s going to get hits. But when it’s all said and done, the question is how long.”
Opposing defenses have taken different approaches to slowing down Griffin, and the rookie quarterback has already seen a handful of looks thrown his direction.
"I don’t think any two teams are scheming this offense the same way,” Griffin said. "They’re all coming up with little nuances to spell their defenses, but at the end of the day, most teams are going to stick to what they do normally.”
Griffin and his ability to change his team’s offense has been the story of the Redskins season.
But for the Ravens, their focus heading into Sunday is to stick with the defense they run best, and work on executing that approach to slow down one of the NFL’s hottest players.
"He is the perfect quarterback for that [offense],” McClain said. "He has the arm to get all the passes done out of that. Everybody knows he has the speed, so it’s going to be a great challenge."