In his introduction to the professional ranks, RG3 brought along a trusty old friend: the Baylor offense. As our colleague Chris Brown noted on Twitter, the Redskins imported some of the concepts and simple reads from the Baylor playbook to give Griffin a low-risk opening sequence to work with. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan crafted a game plan that built upon each look he'd presented to the defense on previous plays, creating space for Griffin while remaining one step ahead of the competition. And that competition? Well, the Redskins couldn't ask for a much better defense to go up against playing this style of football than the Saints. The end result was a truly impressive offensive showing, but one that might struggle to reoccur in the coming weeks.
It all starts with how the Redskins positioned RG3 in their backfield. Regardless of the down, distance, and situation, the Redskins rarely lined up Griffin directly under center in a traditional formation. Instead, RG3 spent most of his time alternating between the Shotgun and the Pistol, a shallower Shotgun formation where the quarterback lines up with a running back behind him. (More on the Pistol from Chris Brown here.) The Redskins kept RG3 off the line of scrimmage on virtually every meaningful offensive snap of the game, and just as it did with Cam Newton a year ago, the threat of a running quarterback kept linebackers frozen and allowed the Redskins to stretch the field both horizontally and, eventually, vertically.
Part of the credit for that shift must go to the younger Shanahan, who was humble enough to mix in the concepts of an unfamiliar game plan with the tried-and-true concepts of his family's more traditional attack. Even more impressive, though, was how Shanahan called his game against the Saints. After starting the game with a bubble screen, Griffin lined up in the Pistol and executed a simple zone read, a two-option run that's a hallmark of notable college offenses from the past decade. When Griffin saw defensive end Cameron Jordan crash down to defend against a possible handoff to halfback Alfred Morris, Griffin simply ran around the vacated end and went untouched for 12 yards.
The Redskins then used that simple zone read, that first impressive carry from Griffin, as a base for their entire offensive scheme. Two plays later, they faked the handoff to Morris out of the Pistol again and threw a quick hitch to the right side of the field, with Garcon going for an easy eight yards. They ran it to the left side on the next play for an even easier first down. When Jordan was more disciplined and didn't crash down into the line of scrimmage, Griffin handed the ball off to Morris for a few yards up the gut. And then, after another quick play fake out of the Pistol, they threw a swing pass to Brandon Banks that turned into a first down when one Saints defender (Patrick Robinson) fruitlessly ran himself out of the play trying to get an interception and another (Malcolm Jenkins) missed a key tackle.
That's part of the reason why this offense was so successful in this particular matchup against this specific defense. If there was a player who could serve as a representation for the Saints and their style of defense over the past few years, it would be departed cornerback Tracy Porter, a speedy ball hawk who skipped on the day they taught sound tackling. A low-risk, high-percentage offense like the Redskins going up against a defense like New Orleans is like a baseball team that puts a lot of balls in play going up against a terrible defense that relies on strikeouts from their pitching staff. (The Saints were also without defensive leader Jonathan Vilma, who might have helped shift the Saints into better positions pre-snap and done a better job of reading those Washington plays on the fly.) By virtually eliminating the possibility of an interception and forcing the Saints to successfully defend against screens and quick hitches all day, the Redskins created tons of opportunities for the Saints to screw up and put their weaknesses on display. Of course, that's exactly what ended up happening.
That long touchdown pass to Garcon actually came on one of the most conventional plays the Redskins ran all day. On their first drive, the Redskins only lined up with RG3 under center once, producing a short gain on a running play. They opened up their second drive in the I-Formation and the Saints promptly pushed 10 men toward the line of scrimmage, leaving a single high safety in coverage. At the snap, Jenkins (27) blitzes toward the ball in the hopes of shooting in and making a play in the backfield, but the play-action freezes him long enough to create a throwing lane for Griffin. Roman Harper (41), the high safety, tries to crash the play and either make a big hit on Garcon or create an interception, but his angle of pursuit is abysmal and he ends up coming in behind the route. Garcon makes an impressive catch, and then he gets help from teammate Josh Morgan (an excellent downfield blocker), who takes out one defensive back just before occupying a second one with his eminently blockable self, creating a one-on-one race to the end zone that Garcon wins over Robinson. It was a well-designed play in the context of a broader game plan that turned into a highlight when the Saints threw in a simple mistake.
As the game wore on, the Redskins sprinkled in more wrinkles to their basic offensive strategy. They began running Morris outside on sweeps out of the Pistol, and even busted out a very traditional triple option on a play that nearly got Griffin killed. And then, occasionally, things would break down and Griffin would throw 30-yard strikes across his body to the sideline as if that were something human beings do on a regular basis.
It was certainly fun to watch, but we have our doubts about the Redskins being able to keep up this sort of performance over the rest of the season. Obviously, they'll play defenses that are more disciplined and better at tackling than New Orleans. The Redskins also had the element of surprise on their hands; Washington ran a few Pistol plays during the preseason, but they otherwise used a vanilla attack that would have offered little to the Saints on film. The cat's out of the bag now. Tape isn't enough for teams to shut down the Redskins, but it will give them ample time to practice and prepare. The game plan also requires a ton of movement by Washington's offensive linemen in terms of getting off the line of scrimmage and moving downfield and/or to the sidelines to block; that's going to create wear and tear and tucker them out as the season goes along. It's notable that the Redskins didn't really run the ball all that well, as their 44 carries only produced 3.5 yards per pop. Morris got 28 carries and produced just 96 yards, which doesn't bode well for his viability as the starter over the next 15 games.
In addition, there were some ways in which the Redskins just got lucky. RG3 didn't throw many contested passes, but one of them was a would-be interception in the end zone that Patrick Robinson wasn't able to hold on to. There were four fumbles in the game, and the Redskins ended up recovering each of them. That included a fumble by Marques Colston on a play in which he was streaking into the end zone, only for the ball to roll out of the back of the end zone and produce a touchback for the Redskins. There was even a fifth fumble called back by a questionable declaration of forward progress; Washington recovered that one, too. The Redskins did a good job on Drew Brees, but they were mostly able to shut down Saints drives by forcing New Orleans into third-and-really-long situations. Four of New Orleans's first six drives ended with them having to pick up double-digit yardage on third down, including two different third-and-20 scenarios. Nobody has any plays in their playbook for third-and-20.
The Redskins are going to be a very fun team to watch this year. They made the Saints look downright foolish on defense on Sunday, and when they've got their offense going, it's going to make other defenses look bad, too. We just feel like they might have had the perfect combination of factors on Sunday to produce a great game. Redskins fans with their heads in the clouds after Griffin's debut might want to lower their expectations from "instant Hall of Fame offense" to "pretty good offense with some hiccups" going forward.