DENVER -- If the Broncos had faced Washington last month, their planning might have been entirely different.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, the versatile triggerman of Washington's attack, was struggling in his return to work after last January's knee injury cost him the offseason and preseason. In effect, the opening month of the regular season was his preseason, and he needed time to acclimate to his new, post-injury reality.
He's done so … with a flourish.
Since returning from a Week 4 bye, Griffin has shown the electric, multi-dimensional skills that set him apart his rookie year. After running on just 9.2 percent of his total plays (runs, passes and times sacked), he's taken off 21.7 percent of the time in the last two games.
What has changed? His discretion. Far more often than not, Griffin is looking for the sideline. On 13 of his 19 runs (not including an aborted handoff that counted as a carry) the last two games, he made it to the sideline; on another three, he tried to get to the sideline, but failed. Contact still has a way of finding him, but it can be costly to the defense; Dallas drew a pair of 15-yard penalties for hitting Griffin after he'd made it to the sideline.
Still, Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said Thursday that his unit will not have any unusual emphasis on avoiding hits near the sideline that will draw flags.
"No, not really. We’re going to try to tackle guys within the confines of the rules," he said. "Be in the strike zone, be smart and when he’s in-play -- whoever it is over there, in-play -- tackle. And when they’re out-of-play, be smart."
As Griffin has found his footing, Washington has made frequent use of the "pistol plus," which incorporates a second back to join Griffin and the tailback. Eleven of Griffin's 19 carries and 89 of his 161 rushing yards the last two weeks came out of that package. Griffin even ran once with three teammates in the backfield on a pistol snap against Dallas in Week 6, but gained only one yard.
Griffin is running smarter, and as a result, he's back to his old self. But what could help him evolve more is the emergence of a potent threat who offers formation flexibility simply by moving around.
THE "REED" OPTION:
It was the biggest play of the game last week -- third-and-4 from the Chicago 13, 1:03 remaining in regulation, Washington down by 3. Chicago had scored on four consecutive possessions and had two more timeouts; fail to score a touchdown, and you're staring at a last-second defeat on a Robbie Gould field goal.
The first, best option was Jordan Reed. After all, it had been all day.
A third-round pick in this year's draft from the University of Florida, Reed had been building toward a breakthrough game like last Sunday's, when he caught all nine passes thrown in his direction for 134 yards and a touchdown.
The most striking part of Reed's emergence is his versatility. Four of his catches came lined up in slot positions. Three came when he was at a traditional tight end spot. One came when he was lined up as an H-back, and his only touchdown saw him split out wide, which confused Chicago's defense in its pre-snap alignment. The Bears didn't react well enough to prevent Griffin from finding Reed on a fade route for a 3-yard touchdown.
For the season to date, Griffin will target Reed once every 4.1 throws. He's caught all but four of the 30 passes thrown in his direction.
"They’re clearly looking to get him the ball," Del Rio said.
Griffin prepares to pass and Reed is on the field, he will target him about once every four throws. Never did he look his way more often than last Sunday, when Reed caught all nine passes thrown in his direction for 134 yards -- 50 of which came after the catch.
-- Washington's most frequently personnel package is a three-wide receiver, one-tight end set. Pierre Garçon, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss are the receivers with Reed at tight end. Washington has only run nine times out of the 69 occasions it has used this grouping.
-- Washington does not run the ball with unusual frequency -- in fact, they've run the football on 39.9 percent of their snaps, as often as the Broncos. But the threat of a running quarterback changes everything. Washington averages 1.3 more yards per carry, ranking second in the league with 5.1 yards per rush, 17 spots ahead of the Broncos. The discrepancy is not as great, however, in first-down rate; Washington moves the chains once every 4.13 runs, the sixth-best rate in the league. Denver is 11th, moving them once every 4.35 carries.