Last week, Bill Davis and the Eagles defense had to game plan for a tough, physical, downhill running attack that featured multiple backs who thrive between the tackles and running through people. Two weeks ago, they had to deal with an offense that had a lot of moving pieces, featured a ton of misdirection, liked to take shots down the field and had a mobile quarterback who could beat you with his arm and with his legs. This week, against Washington, Davis and his unit have to deal with both.
Washington may currently sit at the bottom of the NFC East standings at 3-6, but their offense may be the most difficult to defend in the NFL because of their talent at the skill positions, the tough nature of their running game and the head games they play with defenses with their backfield-action and option principles. This is as big a test as you can get defensively, especially with Robert Griffin III healthier than we saw back in Week 1, as they bring a tough challenge to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon.
Everyone knows that Washington likes to run the ball. They love the outside zone "stretch" play that Mike Shanahan won Lombardi Trophies with during his time in Denver. They run inside zone, counter, toss and power along with it; any way they can get Alfred Morris' shoulders square and get him downhill against a defense they will do it. Last season, with the addition of Griffin III, they added new layers to that approach. The read-option element (which we've seen plenty of here in Philadelphia the last couple of months), gave this offensive attack a new dimension. They line up in multiple personnel groupings that feature one and two-back sets, as many as three tight ends at a time and a host of formations that can make you think you're looking at an Emory Bellard or Paul Johnson offense. They run read-option off of every one of their staple run plays and are excellent at executing and moving the ball with a healthy Griffin III at the helm. I could write for days about the ways this offense can move the ball, but let's just take a look at one of the option elements that has been more prevalent this year in Washington as opposed to 2012; the triple option.
Washington comes out in 12 Personnel, with one back (Morris, in the backfield), and two tight ends. Here, you see receiver Josh Morgan (No. 15) will motion into the backfield before the snap.
This is going to be your basic "triple option" play. Alfred Morris will be the "dive" player, and if Griffin decides to give him the ball he will run right into the belly of the defense and follow his blocks up front. He is the first option on this play.
On this play, Griffin is reading the unblocked defender, defensive end Corey Wootton. If Wootton plays the dive, and runs at Morris, Griffin III will keep it and run to the outside. You see that tight end Logan Paulsen, No. 82, is serving as a lead blocker for Griffin III, and will head straight to the perimeter in case Griffin III decides to tuck it and move into the next phase of the option.
Let's move ahead to the end zone angle, where you see Griffin III now out on the perimeter. I've circled Bears linebacker No. 50 James Anderson. On this play, he is Griffin III's "pitch key." Griffin III has already read off of Wootton for the dive, and he will now read Anderson and decide if he will pitch it to Morgan, who is trailing Griffin to the outside (No. 15 to the left of the shot above). Griffin III keeping the ball would be the second option on this play. Pitching it to Morgan, obviously a risky play, especially in the NFL, would be the third (triple) option. On this play, Griffin III throws a head fake as if he is going to pitch it to Morgan, but keeps it himself. He picks up a 7-yard gain here, and Washington keeps the ball moving.
Let's take a look at the same exact play here, this time against the San Diego Chargers. This time, Washington is in 11 Personnel, with three receivers on the field.
I've circled receiver Santana Moss, who will be put in motion on this play, and will play the role of the pitch-man that we saw Morgan play in the last shot.
It's the same action in the backfield. You see that the Chargers are taking away the dive, as they send the unblocked defender crashing towards the dive-action. Griffin III will keep this ball and run, and you can see he has two lead blockers out in front. There's just one unblocked defender; the pitch key.
As we move to the end zone angle, you can see Griffin III is mid-pitch. He did what's called "pressing" the defender, forcing him to declare either way to himself or to Santana Moss. When the defender decided to take his shot at the quarterback, Griffin III pitches the ball to Moss, who takes it for 18 yards and a first down.
This is Washington though, and both Mike and Kyle Shanahan have done a good job of employing a versatile ground game that features a number of ball carriers. It's not just backs and receivers carrying the ball, as we see on this next play ...
It's first-and-10 against the Chargers, and Washington comes out in 13 personnel, with one back and three tight ends. In the circle, you have rookie tight end Jordan Reed. He will be the pitch man on this play, and comes in motion before the snap.
Again, the Chargers crash down on the dive, and Griffin III is out on the perimeter. San Diego safety Eric Weddle explodes into the backfield, forcing Griffin III to make his decision earlier than he may have liked. Paulsen, knowing that Weddle is still the pitch key, lets him go, and Griffin III pitches to Reed. The rookie tight end (again, a tight end) takes the ball and runs for 18 yards and a first down.
Let's take one more look at this triple option, again this time against Chicago.
It's first-and-10, and this time it's wide receiver Leonard Hankerson running into the backfield before the snap as the pitch man.
Again, we have the same thing. Morris for the dive, with the unblocked defensive end Shea McLellin being Griffin III's read on the play. The Bears have seen it on tape, and have already seen it in this game, and their defense reacts to the play.
Let's look at the end zone angle. Look at all the Bears defenders reacting to the backfield action by Hankerson. His motion before the snap and Paulsen serving as a lead blocker look exactly like the triple option plays we've seen in the last three shots.
But this is what makes this Washington team so dangerous. This is not the play we've seen before. All of that is window dressing, as Reed will actually be running a skinny post down the seam.
Look at all the space in the middle of the field. Whether Griffin III is at 50, 85 or 100 percent, he is capable of making this pass. Reed is wide open, and goes for 26 yards and a first down. It's plays like this that makes Washington one of the most dangerous teams in the NFL. You have to have every "I" dotted and every "t" crossed when you prepare for this offense.
Reed has been a huge addition to this Washington offense. Last year, when the team lost Fred Davis to an injury, you could see how much that affected them. An athletic tight end whom they can use as a moveable chess piece around the formation is huge in that scheme. They line Reed out wide, in the slot, on the line of scrimmage, as an “H-Back,” and as we saw earlier, in the backfield (by the way, you'll want to watch all those plays to get a full idea of what Reed can do with the football).
One thing they like to do with Reed is utilize him in the screen game. Let's take a look ...
It's second-and-13, and Washington comes out in 11 Personnel with trips to the left. The routes by the receivers and an initial pump fake from Griffin III at the snap make the defense think this will be a screen to the left to Santana Moss.
The defense reacts to the pump fake, and Griffin III turns to his real target, Reed, who after a three-count turns around for the screen.
Reed catches the Griffin III pass and takes it for 15 yards and a Washington first down.
Washington has been a very productive "screen team" this year, particularly with Reed and backup running back Roy Helu. Their most dangerous player in the screen game, however, has been wide receiver Pierre Garçon.
It's first-and-10, and Washington comes out in 11 Personnel with one running back, Helu, split out wide in an empty set. Helu will fly across the formation before the snap as if he will be taking a speed sweep to the right.
Right off the bat, you can see what this does to the Green Bay defense, as middle linebacker A.J. Hawk is signaling for help on that side of the field. The speed sweep has their attention.
At the snap of the ball, three linemen release to the left to block at the second level. This will be a quick screen to Garçon, who now has four lead blockers out in front of him.
In what was one of their longest plays of the season, Garçon goes 44 yards for a first down. Look in the circle, as you can see left tackle Trent Williams making a block downfield as Garçon gets caught from behind. Williams, all 328 pounds of him, outran Garçon down the field and blocked a pair of Green Bay defenders on the play. He is one of the most athletic big men in the game, and Washington's best offensive lineman.
Let's fast-forward a bit to last week's game on Thursday Night Football against the Minnesota Vikings, where Garçon's presence in the screen game was present early and often.
Before the snap, you see Washington comes out in 11 Personnel again, with Helu split out wide. This time, Garçon is in the backfield in a pistol set, with Griffin III in the shotgun. This is just another in a wide array of formations we've seen Washington deploy in this piece alone; they are a versatile offense. Before the play, we'll see Garçon motion out to the right of the formation.
At the snap of the ball, again we see three linemen release to the right to block downfield. This is another quick screen to Garçon, who now has SIX lead blockers out in front.
The Washington offensive line gets to the second level, he gets blocks downfield from his receivers and the rest is on Garçon. He makes one man miss after the catch, runs over a Minnesota safety, breaks one more tackle for good measure and goes out of bounds after a 32-yard gain. On Wednesday, Griffin III called Garçon a "running back playing receiver," because of his physical nature as a ball carrier, and that was evident on this play.
Let's take a look at another play, one which may seem familiar to some Eagles fans if you've been paying attention.
It's third-and-15, and Washington comes out once again in 11 Personnel with Garçon all by himself to the far left. To the right, you'll see what appears to be four vertical routes from two receivers, the running back and a tight end.
This is not a vertical shot play, however, as the Vikings defense would soon find out. This is actually a screen play, and the same exact screen play we saw the Kansas City Chiefs succeed with against the Eagles back in Week 3 with Donnie Avery. Look at the alley Garçon has thanks to four lead blockers that got a great head start. Garçon takes this screen for 30 more yards and a Washington first down.
This final screen play will look familiar, as I just broke it down a week ago. It's a screen we've seen from the Green Bay Packers in the past on tape, and the Packers actually ran it on Sunday against the Eagles three or four times with success, so I wouldn't be shocked if Washington tries it this weekend.
It's first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, and Washington will show run-action off the snap. This will look just like their staple outside-zone stretch play to the right with Morris following the lead block of fullback Darrel Young.
Look in the backfield. Look to the right side of the offensive line. Everything about this says outside zone to the right. Minnesota's front seven sees it, look at all of their body language. The defensive flow is all pointed directly towards the stretch side.
As I take you to the sideline angle, you'll see Griffin III finishes carrying out the fake. Two offensive linemen release, and Garçon is waiting patiently in the slot.
Garçon cuts it back inside, and takes it for an 8-yard touchdown. The screen play comes in many shapes and forms when you play Washington, and they used it heavily in their last game against Minnesota.
Way, way back in September, before these two teams played in Week 1, I wrote that Washington’s go-to route combination in 2012 was the dig-post. Well, while Washington's passing game hasn't struck as much as they may have liked thus far in 2013, it's starting to hit its stride, and the dig-post is consistently one of their staples.
Washington's abilities as a running team directly correlates to their deep passing game. When you run the ball as physical as they do routinely, rarely are you going to play with a two-safety shell, as you want that extra safety in the box. When you're an option team on top of that, you also tend to force defenses to play more basic coverages, to keep defenders from getting lost in space. That plays directly into what Washington wants to do as a deep passing team. Let's look again at that shot I just showed you.
Again, they want to force you to play with one single-high safety because of the way they run the ball. And when you line up in single high, their route combinations, whether it's post-dig like you see above, or go-post (one of their other favorites), they want to put that one safety in a bind. His decision in coverage will dictate where the quarterback goes with the ball. It's an easy read for the quarterback, as he goes deep to short in his progression (the deep post is his first read, the dig his second and the flat the third). They have a receiver go deep, another crossing the middle and if both of those are taken away for some reason, there is a check-down option in the flat. It's that simple offensively, but still incredibly tough to defend. This principle is very much akin to what the Eagles do offensively, and the concept has led to a number of the team's long touchdowns to DeSean Jackson and Riley Cooper.
This two-man route concept, like I said, is a favorite of Washington. I've started to notice something new this season, however, something I didn't see in 2012.
Washington knows that everyone else knows this is their go-to route. So they've added a new wrinkle, something on the back end to continue playing with opposing secondaries.
On this play, you see the post-dig combination, but with Santana Moss running a wheel route behind it.
Again, the idea is to attack the Cowboys deep safety on this play. The outside corner knows this, he's seen it on tape for a year and he decides to carry the post. He knows Washington typically runs a two-man route, and assumes nothing is coming from the backside.
The corner is wrong. While he carries that post route towards the middle of the field (they're in Cover-3, not man coverage, he should stay home and pass that post route) Santana Moss begins his route right into the void.
Fortunately for that Cowboys cornerback, Griffin III badly under throws Moss, who has to sit and wait for the ball to arrive. Moss makes the reception for "only" a 26-yard gain. If the throw is out in front, it likely goes for a 79-yard touchdown.
Griffin III obviously wasn't 100 percent in Week 1, and he may still not be, no one knows the answer to that question but him. But, like we talked about against Oakland, it's not as if Bill Davis is upstairs at NovaCare with his feet up saying, 'Well RG III is hurt, he can't run, he can't throw downfield, we should be fine.' There is a ton you have to prepare for when you play this Washington team on offense, and you have to have an answer for every facet of their offensive attack, whether it's the power run game, pistol set, read-option, triple-option, deep passing game, etc. This is a tough task for Davis and the defense on Sunday afternoon.
I'll quickly shift gears to the Washington defense. Obviously this unit has underachieved after a season in 2012 in which they performed admirably despite being decimated by injuries. Still, there is talent there. But for the purpose of this piece, I wanted to take a look at a trend that really stood out to me on tape, and it's something that all points back to their Week 1 game against the Eagles, and the NFL's first glimpse at Chip Kelly.
It's second-and-4 at the start of the second quarter, and the Eagles come out in the all-too-familiar-at-this-point 11 Personnel grouping with one back (LeSean McCoy) and a tight end (Brent Celek). This is the package play that we've seen numerous times this season. You've got inside zone-action with McCoy, a pop pass over the middle to Celek and DeSean Jackson on a bubble screen in the slot.
All Vick has to do on this play is read the eyes of linebacker London Fletcher. He will determine where the ball goes.
On this play, Vick sees Fletchers eyes in the backfield, and he throws the pop pass to Celek, who takes it for a 28-yard gain and an Eagles first down.
Fast-forward two weeks to Week 3 against the Detroit Lions. It's first-and-10 and the Lions come out in the same 11 personnel package. It's the same exact play, with the inside zone-action, to running back Joique Bell, a pop pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew, or a bubble screen to receiver Nate Burleson.
This time, Fletcher plays the pop pass, and Matthew Stafford hands it off to Bell, who takes it 12 yards for the touchdown.
Now to Week 6, where Washington welcomes the Chicago Bears. It's first-and-goal from the 7-yard line late in the fourth quarter. The Bears are down by four points, and a touchdown drive will put them in front. What do they go to?
You guessed it. Inside zone-read to Matt Forte, pop pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, or bubble screen to the slot.
Look at Fletcher's eyes, they are directly in the backfield. The pop pass to Bennett is wide open, and it's a touchdown for Chicago to take the lead (though the Redskins would eventually win, 45-41, thanks to a touchdown in the final minute).
Will we see this package on Sunday? Maybe. But if we do, it will be interesting to see if - and how - Washington can defend it, as it's something they've seen multiple times this fall.
For a more thorough breakdown of the Eagles upcoming matchup against Washington, be sure to tune into Eagles Game Plan this weekend, and I'll be back next week to give my findings after watching the tape.