Ron Rivera knows a couple things about what Mike Shanahan and his coaching staff are going to be facing come this September.
The third-year head coach of the Carolina Panthers, Rivera just put the finishing touches on his second season helping to mentor mobile quarterback Cam Newton. Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, took the NFL by storm two seasons ago before running into struggles during an inconsistent sophomore season.
Like Newton did this past campaign, Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin is going to be embarking on year-two as a zone-read, dual-threat passer. The Baylor product will face some of the same challenges that Newton did in a second season that saw Carolina’s offense drop 13 spots in scoring offense from where it ranked when Newton broke into the NFL.
“If you’re not diverse, if you’re not giving them something else to look at, teams are going to load eight or nine guys up in the box,” Rivera said about how teams tried to attack the Panthers’ pistol offense after having a year to study it. “When they do that you’ve got to be able to throw it.”
Newton completed 57 percent of his passes while throwing for 3,869 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2012. His passer rating improved in his second campaign because he turned the ball over less (having been intercepted 12 times in 2012 compared to 19 times in 2011).
Rivera noticed that Carolina was able to hit on some big plays when clubs would overload the box to sell-out against Newton’s running abilities out of the zone-read.
“Teams have to be careful if you get too many in the box, we can throw it,” the longtime defensive coordinator said. “If you don’t we can run it. It’s got to be a mix.”
If Rivera thinks staying balanced is the key to staying one step ahead of the defenses trying to catch up to the scheme the Redskins are now running, than Washington could be in good shape. Alfred Morris ran for 1,600 yards as a rookie last year and Pierre Garcon developed into one of the NFL’s most targeted wide receivers during the team’s seven-game winning streak to finish the season.
But what does Rivera think about the future of the zone-read? Does he think coordinators are going to find the antidote for passers like Griffin and Newton, who can burn teams with their legs as well as their powerful arms?
“People are going to look long and hard at it,” he said. “NFL coaches are going to talk to a lot of college coaches and try and get their feedback and their ideas on how to stop it.”
Despite an offensive regression and a deterioration in the redzone that included Newton rushing for six fewer touchdowns than he did as a rookie, the Panthers won one more game than they did in 2011.
If the Redskins can boost their win total in Griffin’s second season at the controls, they’ll be an 11-win club and likely a division champion for a second time in as many seasons.