Unless you're firmly in Andrew Luck's corner when it comes to the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year nomination -- and there's certainly some weight to that argument -- the wild-card battle between the Washington Redskins and Seattle Seahawks presents perhaps the two most exciting first-year quarterbacks in the game. Between Washington's Robert Griffin III and Seattle's Russell Wilson, we have two quarterbacks with similar skill sets and efficiency in the passing game -- both players are also dynamic rushers who can break things open on the ground.
However, and with all the talk about Griffin and Wilson, it's most likely that the best defense on the field Sunday afternoon will take this game, because from a productivity perspective, the two quarterbacks basically cancel each other out. Additionally, both teams are really based on rushing attacks bolstered by power zone blocking, and the pass games are secondary -- or, perhaps, a "1a" concern.
[Video: RBs are key for Seahawks, Redskins]
Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17, Griffin, who is still recovering from a late-season knee injury, was not quite as dynamic as a pure rusher. That doesn't mean that he was any less of a threat to a defense; it just exposed the fact that there are so many other things he can do. Instead of the standard read- and zone-option plays that have been a staple of Washington's offense all season, there was Griffin succeeding as a pure pocket passer, sending running back Alfred Morris on successful stretch plays, and befuddling Dallas' defense with the threat -- if not always the reality -- that he'd take off and use that 4.3 speed. The play-action fakes are still there, and if your safeties aren't trained to stay in their gaps, Griffin will still throw the ball over your head and make you look very, very silly.
Griffin is expected to wear the knee brace he wore against the Cowboys against the Seahawks, but again, Seattle can't assume under any circumstances that their task is easier as a result. Washington is still as diverse when it comes to pre-snap movement as any team in the league, and that will test Seattle's base defense, even though it's one of the best in the game.
Where Griffin will find the ultimate test is against Seattle's secondary, which might be the premier pass defense unit in the NFL now that suspended cornerback Brandon Browner will return. Browner combines with Richard Sherman, and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. Seattle will play Washington's receivers with a lot of aggressive press coverage on the outside, and in the slot, rookie Jeremy Lane -- who looked pretty good as Browner's replacement -- has the trail ability to stick with most speed slot receivers. Griffin may see shifting safeties and disguised coverages, which he hasn't seen much of this season, because the threat of his rushing keeps defenses honest. We'll see how much head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley believe they have the horses to show RG3 things he hasn't seen before.
Morris, the sixth-round rookie, is far more than a mere beneficiary of Griffin's jets. He's a powerful, surprisingly fast back who can bull linebackers over, or scoot right past them. He has an outstanding ability to cut and find the open gap quickly, which makes him the ideal star in Mike Shanahan's zone-blocking schemes. For all their defensive acumen, the Seahawks have been inconsistent against the run, and they can't afford to be that against Griffin and Morris. As in defending all that option stuff, gap and lane integrity will be key.
Washington's receivers present interesting challenges to Seattle's defense, especially in the slot, where you'll most often see veteran Santana Moss. Griffin might look to test Lane there early, and if Lane falters against Moss' route awareness, that could be a big problem for Seattle. One thing of which we're pretty sure -- whoever's going up against Sherman won't do much. Per Pro Football Focus' metrics, Sherman played 980 snaps in the regular season, was thrown at 87 times, and allowed just 41 receptions for 634 yards, two touchdowns and eight picks.
No cornerback who started the entire regular season outside allowed a lower passer rating than Sherman's 40.5 in coverage. Basically, quarterbacks who went up against Sherman this year turned into Mark Sanchez on one of his intermediate days. That's cool for Seattle, but they've never faced anyone quite like RG3 -- especially if RG3 can run. That's an entirely different concept to deal with.
When the Seahawks have the ball
Few quarterbacks have been hotter in the last two months than Wilson, regardless of NFL tenure. In November and December, Seattle's rookie field general completed 123 of 183 passes (a 67.2 completion percentage) for 1,652 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Add the four rushing touchdowns he amassed in December alone, and it's clear that the Redskins are dealing with a player on a major streak.
As Seattle's coaching staff has learned to trust Wilson with the entire playbook, Seattle's passing offense has become more expansive, but there are also new elements to take advantage of Wilson's mobility. Just as the Redskins do, Seattle likes to set defenses up to fail with option plays and run concepts out of the Pistol formation. And just as it is with Griffin, the downside for Wilson is that he gets hit a lot (12 sacks in December), and he will leave open passing plays on the field at times when he's running around, trying to make something happen. It's not a concern of frequency, but it's something Washington's defense, coached by Jim Haslett, can exploit.
In line with that notion, Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's NFL Matchup outlined what he thought Haslett might do with his defense in this week's matchup podcast.
"I think Haslett is going to say, 'You know what? I'm gonna blitz that little you-know-what, and I'm going to make him start running all over the field. He might beat me once in a while, but I'm gonna make him run around, and play totally outside of structure. I'd rather do that than have them play in their structured, hand-the-ball-off approach.'"
One thing's for sure -- though Wilson has improved against the blitz in the second half of the season, he's still learning to deal with extra pressure as a pure passer. When pressured in 2012, Wilson completed 54 of 120 passes for five touchdowns and three interceptions. Where he excels is in avoiding the huge mistake -- on 187 pressured dropbacks, he threw the ball away 25 times, by far the highest percentage of bailout throws per pressure among starting quarterbacks.
As much as Morris has helped the Redskins' ground game, the Seahawks are defined in their entire team approach by running back Marshawn Lynch, who finished third in the NFL behind Adrian Peterson and Morris in rushing yards. Lynch is not a speed back, but with the exception of Peterson, there is no back in the league better at bouncing off first contact and making defenses pay for taking the wrong angle. There are times, in fact, when Lynch seems to go out of his way to initiate contact -- he thinks like a fullback, and he'll mix it up from whistle to whistle. Washington's front seven, among the league's worst in Football Outsiders' metrics for power and short-yardage situations, could have a real problem here.
Washington doesn't have the pure talent that Seattle does in its secondary, but Haslett is coaching those guys up pretty well. The key to stopping Wilson and the Seahawks' passing attack could very well be the placement and positioning of cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who can be a real liability in the slot. Receivers Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate should look to take advantage.
How it could go: This is as even a matchup on the offensive side of the ball as you'll see throughout the playoffs. The fact that the Seahawks are travelling cross-country gives the Redskins an edge, but that edge could well be negated by the simple fact that Seattle's defense is simply better from stem to stern. If Wilson stays within himself and excels as the pure passer he can be, the Redskins will find it hard to keep up. But if Griffin is healthy enough to add to his repertoire of shot plays with optimal mobility, and Seattle's defense can't keep the pace, RG3 could once again transcend the excellence of his opponent. If that knee was a bit closer to 100 percent -- and it may be by Sunday -- the Redskins would be tough to pick against. But we're thinking that Seattle will keep Griffin in the box just enough to pull out a win in what should be an amazing game.
Prediction: Seahawks 31, Redskins 28 (OT)
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