WASHINGTON — Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III back-to-back. That hardly seems fair.
“It’s been a long two weeks; I can assure you that,” Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith said, “in terms of our preparation.”
The upside for the Falcons is that they won the first one, beating run-and-throw Newton and the Carolina Panthers, and they can now use what they learned from that experience when they face the similarly multi-threatening Griffin and the Washington Redskins on Sunday.
“You can find out what doesn’t work,” Smith said with a laugh. “We did some things last week that weren’t as effective as we’d like to be. We also have a similar tinge in terms what they’re doing. It’s not exactly the same, but you have to account for the quarterback in their running game.”
The Falcons (4-0) nearly lost their unbeaten record last week, rescued only in the final minute when Matt Ryan led a 77-yard drive from his own 1-yard line to set up a game-winning field goal in a two-point win. They allowed Newton to throw for 215 yards and run for 86.
No. 2 overall pick Griffin combined the best of both for the Redskins (2-2) last week, putting up Newton-like numbers while leading a Ryan-like comeback. He threw for 323, ran for 36 and led a 56-yard drive from his own 20 and – that’s right – set up a game-winning field goal in a two-point win.
That makes Sunday’s matchup all the more intriguing. Ryan is the NFL’s top-rated passer and an early favorite for league MVP. Griffin is the top-rated first-year quarterback and a top contender for rookie of the year. Both have completed 69.4 percent of their passes, and they’ve combined to throw only three interceptions.
One catch: Griffin has yet to face a defense this good, while Ryan has yet to face one this bad.
Griffin’s two wins have come against teams that are a combined 1-7. As teams study him more, they’ll get a better idea of how to stop the spread option that coach Mike Shanahan has incorporated into his more traditional zone blocking, West Coast schemes. The Falcons should provide his toughest test yet as the Redskins begin a difficult stretch in their schedule.
“There’s something to say about being 4-0,” Griffin said. “They’re a good team, and that’s the bottom line.” We could very well be a 4-0 football team. There are a lot of football teams out there that could be 4-0 teams. You’re that close from being there. It’ll be a challenge for us, but it’s not something we look upon as a hill or a mountain we have to climb. It’s a football game and we have to go win.”
The Redskins’ secondary has been vulnerable all season, already allowing six passing plays of 40 yards or more. Opponents are scoring 31 points per game.
“Why do they make those plays?” Shanahan said. “That’s what we do when we look at film, we talk about the things that we did to give up those big plays. Is it scheme? Is it personnel? Doesn’t matter what it is. You have to take a look at what players do best and you have to adjust your scheme to fit your personnel. That’s always an ongoing process.”
Shanahan often cites how important it is to surround a rookie quarterback with a strong defense and a solid running game. The Falcons are a good example, having made the playoffs with an all-round talented squad when Ryan was a rookie in 2008.
“It’s probably magnified when you’re a rookie because there’s so many things you have to learn,” Ryan said. “There’s so many things going on. There’s so many things that you have to adjust to. Not only on the field, but off the field as well. I was fortunate. I had very good teammates around me, guys that made a ton of plays.”