How Washington Used RG3 and the Wide Zone to Control the Mike Linebacker

It probably seems like forever ago at this point, but in 2012, Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan were tearing up NFL defenses using a deadly combination of Alex Gibbs’ classic wide zone concept fused with the zone read play critics said would never work at the professional level.

What’s always been most interesting to me is how coaches and teams react when faced with adversity, and what they do when they’re limited in some way. A great example of this scenario can be found in studying RG3’s first (and so far) only playoff appearance.

There had been wide speculation leading up to this game about whether or not Griffin would be able to return from his injury in time to play, since he had sustained a knee injury a couple weeks earlier that many thought would be the end of his season.

Still, even though RG3 returned in time for this game, he was still limited in his mobility and quickness, which presented a challenge for Mike Shanahan, who had to design a game plan that relied less on Griffin and more on fellow rookie Alfred Morris.

So what did he do? When you’re faced with a challenge, it makes a lot of sense to return to what you know best, and in Washington’s case, that’s the wide zone play.

The Wide Zone

At the start of the game, Washington starts off with the play that makes it all go, the wide zone play.

While it’s true that Shanahan’s run game philosophy was heavily influenced by Alex Gibbs and his wide zone play, Washington has put their own spin on the play to fit the personnel they have and the talent on defense that they regularly see from opponents week after week.

Here are the basics

Washington starts the game with the wide zone play, so let’s break it down a little bit.

The focus on this play is to create a lot of movement at the point of attack, which in this case is in the C-gap between the tackle and tight end, so the combo block by the right tackle and the tight end in the pictures and diagrams is incredibly important to the success of the play.

Moving to the left and inside of the offensive line, the only thing Washington needs is for the right guard to not losehis battle with the three technique. What does that mean exactly? Well, the aiming point for the (at this point) rookie running back Alfred Morris ends up being so wide that as long as the guard doesn’t allow the defensive tackle across from him to chase down the play from behind, the offense will take it. Because the guard is already starting out at a disadvantage against the 3 technique defensive tackle, a stalemate is good enough to get the job done here.

As we move to the heart of the offensive line, this is where some of the most important parts of the game are played.

Much of Washington’s strategy is centered around the Mike linebacker in this scheme, #54 Bobby Wagner, and how to neutralize him.

Wagner has the responsibility of being the extra, unblocked man against the run, wreaking havoc and chasing the play down from behind, but on this play his presnap alignment puts him at a huge disadvantage.

On this first play, the defense is lined up ready to stop the zone read play that Washington used to slice through opposing run defenses so many times in 2012. They’ve lined their Will and Mike linebackers conspicuously to the weak side of the run formation, counting on the Sam and the near safety to hold the line to the opposite side in case of a run to that side.

Heading into the game, much of the talk was about Griffin’s knee, and whether he would be as dangerous on the ground as he had been all year long, and how a lack of mobility would affect the Washington offense.

By the looks Seattle was giving Washington early on, it’s clear that they were not going to allow RG3 to run wild on them, even if it meant being a little softer against the run in other places. Pete Carroll was going to take away what made Washington so dangerous, at least until he knew for sure how much that injury affected Griffin’s game.

As you can see from the picture, the Sam linebacker does a great job here of setting the edge and forcing the play up inside of him. The problem for Seattle is that Washington does such a great job on the tackle/tight end combo and completely removes the defensive end from the equation, that it’s not until the near safety comes down from his spot in the secondary that Seattle has anyone in any kind of position to get a hand on Morris.

He gets almost four yards down the field before anyone from Seattle lays a finger on him.

He’s eventually forced to the sideline by the defense, but not until picking up nine yards.

So what does this mean for both teams?

Though it’s hard to draw a lot of conclusions from one play, right now, with Griffin’s mobility limited, Washington has to be able to find as many ways to run the football, and specifically the wide zone play, as possible.

For Seattle, they’ll need to put Wagner, one of their best run defenders, in a position where it’s harder for the offense to run away from him, and the guys up front need to keep the offensive line off of Wagner and the rest of the guys at the second level of the defense.

As we discussed recently, even the smallest change in alignment and depth can make all the difference in the world when determining how to put inside linebackers in the position to best defend the run.

For the rest of this article, we’re going to look at the ways Washington Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan tries to keep the defense guessing, and specifically tries to either block Wagner, or avoid him altogether.

Using Formations

The first and easiest way to affect a defense is to find different formations to line up in that allow you to still run your desired play call. That’s what Washington does just two plays later after running the wide zone play, the difference being that the fullback is lined up at the wing position, just off the line of scrimmage, to the right of the tight end.

With as much success as Washington had on the last wide zone play, especially at the lead back position, Shanahan says, why not bring him even closer to his assignment (the Sam linebacker)?

It probably doesn’t seem like anything revolutionary, and that’s because it’s not. Good coaching isn’t about re-inventing the wheel every single week, it’s about being able to put your players in the best possible position to be successful, and many times, it can be as easy as making a very simple adjustment on offense that’s specifically tailored to your opponent that week.

This has a couple of effects on the defense. For one thing, Seattle moves their linebackers over several steps, shifting in response to the extra gap created to the “wing side” of the formation.

As you can see, the Mike linebacker is moved over to a stacked position just inside of the defensive end to put him in a better position to play the run that’s likely to be headed to the offensive right side based on their alignment.

The problem for Seattle on this play is that even with his favorable presnap positioning, Wagner is still slow to react, and the combo at the right tackle/ tight end spot gets push on the defensive end to that side and quickly gains leverage on him, making their assignment to seal him off from the play that much easier.

The Zone Read

While it’s true that Griffin was limited to a degree in the mobility department, Washington was still able to run the zone read play a couple of times in this game with a mild amount of success.

Besides just showing Seattle that Griffin was still a threat to run the ball, it also served as another way to keep Mike linebacker Bobby Wagner guessing in the run game, and slow him down momentarily. For Washington, a moment of hesitation is all they need to be able to seal him off from the play, since by providing a stationary target, he makes it extremely easy for the offensive linemen coming off combos to get to him and put themselves between Griffin and Wagner.

The offense starts out in a “twins” formation before moving the Z receiver from right to left in an effort to get a read on whether or not they can move the safety #31 Kam Chancellor from one side to another.

Seattle is already showing a tendency to stick a safety into the box as an adjuster for any motion or extra gaps to either side that Washington will play with, so the offense needs to know whether or not he will move with the motion, or whether his alignment is mostly set in stone before the snap.

Chancellor doesn’t move with the motion and the corner to the top of the screen bumps out over the receiver.

Note the alignment of the linebackers in this scenario, especially the Mike.

Since the tight end is assigned to release the defensive end over him and angle toward the Sam linebacker, the combo at the left tackle/left guard position is of great importance when it comes to sealing off Wagner from the play.

The ball is snapped, and the unblocked end closes down the line on the give read, allowing Griffin to take off along the left side.

While Wagner is stuck watching the mesh between Griffin and Morris, the left guard and left tackle are creating a ton of movement on the three technique and working up to him. It’s always easier to hit a target that’s not moving.

The left tackle succeeds on getting a block on Wagner, but it’s actually the Will linebacker who ends up becoming a factor on this play.

The fullback is such an integral part of the Washington zone read scheme, because he works as an extra blocker for Griffin, and increases the uncertainty at the linebacker position. It’s very hard to be aggressive as a defender when you’re seeing several offensive players running in different directions, and that’s just what Washington is hoping for.

As the Will linebacker comes over the top from the opposite side of the formation, avoiding the mess of players blocked and being blocked at the point of attack, he finds the fullback climbing to the second level, who does a great job of keeping him out of the play.

Of course, that doesn’t matter, since Griffin isn’t able to run the play as intended, as we’ll talk about below.

As Griffin takes off along the right edge, it’s clear that he’s not fully recovered from his knee injury.

I hate to play the Trent Richardson game here and take a single screenshot out of context, but on second and short, a runner with healthy knees should be able to go north and south, and cut up through the gigantic hole for the first down.

As it stands, Griffin is able to beat the defense to the edge and pick up the first down before being forced out of bounds.

The offense has shown the defense, and particularly the linebackers, another look on this play. From Wagner’s perspective, he’s got offensive players coming at him from every angle, which creates a little bit of hesitation.

It’s this element of unpredictability that keeps the defense on their toes, and keeps the drive moving along smoothly for Washington.

Bunch Toss/ Crackback Block

Is the Mike linebacker giving you trouble? Is it getting tougher and tougher to block him with the big guys you’ve got up front? How about you surprise him with a block from another direction, from the exterior of the formation with a receiver coming at him from a different angle than you’re used to? That’s exactly what happens on this play.

With as much success as the Washington offense has had in this game running the football to the alley, they’ve got to find more than one way to do it or risk becoming more predictable. The more predictable they become, the easier it is for Wagner and his fellow defenders to play faster.

As the diagram shows, the Z receiver cracks down on the Mike, and the right tackle will exchange responsibilities with the receiver. Where before he’d be working in conjunction with the tight end, trying to create movement on the defensive end while working up to the nearest linebacker, now he’s pulling for the corner to that side, Richard Sherman.

The tight end also is in an advantageous position by virtue of his alignment, since his job is to pin the defensive end inside, and all he has to do is step to his left and use the angle he already has to wall off the end from the play.

The fullback’s responsibility remains the same, as he’ll still be blocking out on the Sam linebacker just as before.

As you can see from the picture below, the defense also gives a large cushion to the bunch side of the formation, giving the offensive skill players plenty of room to get to their assignments, and giving lots of ground at the point of attack.

Notice the angle the tight end has on the defensive end to his side. It’s another example of how much good the bunch formation can do when used properly.

After RG3 tosses the football to Morris, the offense sets up their blocks to the right side, and the crackback block on Wagner by the Z receiver (which is key to the success of the play) is good enough to delay him from getting in the alley and involved in the play.

As the right tackle heads downfield aiming for Richard Sherman, Sherman “cuts” him, taking out the blocker, but paving the way for a huge gain down inside the five as only the safeties are able to chase down Morris before he can cross the goal line.

We’ve now seen Washington come at the Mike linebacker from every different direction, and use several different ways to run the football in the alley. All four of these plays that we’ve talked about came on the opening drive of the game, and this unpredictability is a big reason why Washington had such success early on.

Setting Up The Cutback

Now let’s fast forward to the second half for a look at what kind of adjustments an offense can use to take advantage of a defense that’s over-playing the run to one side or another.

The offense has established the run, and has a pretty good idea of how the defense will align to a “wing” look, they can line up in a similar formation on their continuing quest to make Bobby Wagner’s job as difficult as possible.

Since the defense has already aligned themselves to stop a run to the wing side, they’ve opened themselves up to the cutback play, a fact which is only reinforced once the Z receiver is put in motion from left to right, and all three linebackers take some very noticeable steps toward the strong side of the formation once they recognize the motion.

This is exactly what Washington was hoping for.

After taking the snap and handing the football off to Morris, you can see by the photo below that all three linebackers, including Wagner are already flying at full speed to the strong side of the formation.

This is where the wide zone play comes in handy, because it helps set up opportunities like this one.

Instead of trying to block Wagner, why not just run behind him?

Morris picks up a nice gain, and as the picture from the end zone shows, the defense reacted exactly as Washington had hoped.

In fact, the only way the play could’ve been better is if RG3 had done a better job booting away from the run and holding the backside defenders. As it stands, however, the play will help keep Seattle’s defense from being quite as aggressive the next time around.


As was talked about before, the first four plays in this article all took place during the first drive of the game. With Washington making such an effort to be unpredictable early on, it’s no wonder that they managed to jump ahead to an early 14–0 lead after their first two drives.

They focused on what they did well, and found multiple ways to do it. As the game wore on, however, the offense became more stale and predictable, and instead of maximizing the things they did well, Washington tried to get a little too complex.

Seattle ended up coming back to win the football game late, and a big reason was because Washington didn’t do a great job managing their large lead in this game. It’s certainly true that Robert Griffin’s leg injury held him back from being as dangerous and explosive as he had been all year long, but the Washington offense had enough other tools in the toolbox to keep defenses on their toes, but couldn’t get it done.

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