Slow to start, Redskins’ offense found higher gear

The problem came down to belief. 

That’s what Alfred Morris insisted next to empty chairs and full equipment bags in a quiet corner of the Washington Redskins‘ locker room Sunday. The running back sounded like a motivational speaker, not a rookie, as he explained the adjustment that transformed his team’s offense in the second half of the 38-31 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at FedEx Field.

An offense built around a shaky line, inexperienced running backs and a rookie quarterback, even the thrill-a-minute Robert Griffin III, is an uncertain proposition. So, afternoons when the Redskins scuffle to 68 yards in the first half — less than the Bengals rolled up on their first play — then become a blur of yards and unusual formations are to be expected.

“Knowing that we’re an explosive offense, that we’re capable of doing what we were in the second half,” Morris said. “They weren’t stopping us. We were stopping ourselves.”

The seven longest plays by the Redskins came in the second half, as they shook off the fumble-and-punt offense of the first half to amass 313 yards after the break.

They needed no dramatic personnel shift or emotional halftime speech. Instead, the Redskins ran on 15 of their first 19 plays in the second half and, as a result, scored touchdowns on their first two possessions. The idea was to force the Bengals to bring their safeties up to play the run, stop playing the zone defense that was effective in the first half and, by default, open passing lanes. Finally, they discovered a rhythm.

Sure, tackle Trent Williams dragged his right leg after a knee injury. But the Redskins deployed the option-heavy offense installed to fit Griffin’s scrambling and added a wrinkle that looked like something conjured up by Navy’s ground-friendly team, not the NFL.

Speedy return man and receiver Brandon Banks, all of 5-foot-7, repeatedly lined up at tailback. Morris and Evan Royster joined him in the backfield at the same time. That provided Griffin a threat to pitch to on the various incarnations of the option. The backfield posed a question the Bengals couldn’t answer: With three talented runners stuffed in the backfield, who do you key on?

Banks took his first pitch 21 yards and finished with 29 yards on three carries to match the rushing attempts for his career. His shifty running style makes would-be tacklers miss, one of the reasons coach Mike Shanahan kept him on the 53-man roster, and is gleeful to get his hands on the ball any way he can.

“Brandon is a playmaker,” said Griffin, who ran 12 times for 85 yards and focused on playing more aggressive football in the second half. “He’s a guy that gives you mismatches.”

Added Morris: “You never know who’s going to get the ball. It threw a curveball at the defense because they didn’t know what to expect.”

The option-heavy approach left Griffin’s No. 10 jersey and gold pants covered in green as he peeled them off in the locker room after the game. He had no idea how many hits he absorbed. That was the price, as the Bengals focused on slowing Griffin and contacted him to the ground 21 times. Several of the shots left Griffin slow to get up. Most of these hits weren’t glancing blows or half-hearted tackles. They were vicious introductions to FedEx Field’s turf.

The stream of licks aren’t new, as Griffin has been hit at least 46 times in his first three games. Yes, some of those came after designed draws and options. But the frequency and severity of Sunday’s hits left teammates vacillating between concern and cliches that hits, even 21, are part of the game.

“They were trying to attack Robert,” Morris said. “I was definitely upset with that.”

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