NFL Preview - Washington (3-7) at San Francisco (6-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Through his own words and thanks to some statements made by others, Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III was thrust into the spotlight this week for all the wrong reasons.
The third-year pro hopes he makes headlines for all the right reasons this Sunday when the Redskins travel west to battle the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium.
Griffin suffered a dislocated left ankle in Week 2 versus Jacksonville, causing him to miss the next six weeks of action. Washington lost the first four games without him under center, but rebounded to win two in a row behind Colt McCoy.
However, Griffin returned to action in Week 9 for a 29-26 loss in Minnesota, then struggled following a bye week in a 27-7 setback to Tampa Bay.
The former second overall pick of the 2012 draft threw for 207 yards with a 30-yard touchdown pass to running back Roy Helu Jr., but was intercepted twice in the first quarter, with one returned for a touchdown that spotted the Buccaneers an early lead.
Griffin made comments after the game about needing other guys to play well, with some thinking he was throwing his team under the bus, allegations the quarterback denied in his Twitter account. Things then went a step further on Monday when rookie head coach Jay Gruden pointed out fundamental issues Griffin was still having.
Gruden backtracked on Wednesday, faulting himself for things becoming more about Griffin than the team, noting that nobody should be singled out.
"It was a mistake on my part. After a loss like that, we're very disappointed with the way we played," said the coach. "The question came up about how he played and I just answered it first thing that came to my mind. Sometimes the first thing that comes to your mind isn't the smartest thing. It wasn't the right thing to do on my part. Corrections should be made in-house with everybody involved."
A toned-down Griffin deflected many of the questions he fielded on Wednesday to saying all he and the team could do is concentrate on San Francisco.
"Jay wants me to play better. I want to play better. We're focused on San Francisco and making that happen. That's all I have to say about that," said Griffin.
Washington, at 3-7, is still trying to surpass its three-win total from a season ago and is just 1-4 this year on the road, where it will play two straight.
The 49ers, meanwhile, return home after back-to-back road wins over New Orleans and the New York Giants. They followed up an overtime defeat of the Saints with a strong defensive effort that led to a 16-10 decision over the Giants.
Michael Crabtree had the lone San Francisco touchdown on a 48-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick, while the Niners defense picked off New York quarterback Eli Manning five times.
Chris Borland had two picks, including one at the goal line in the fourth quarter to thwart a late Giants threat, as the 49ers held on for their fifth victory in seven games.
"It was a spectacular performance by our defense today," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. "So many guys stepped up and played great, living in the moment, competing like the dickens and making tremendous athletic, football plays."
A 6-4, the Niners are tied with Seattle for second place in the NFC West, three games back of 9-1 Arizona.
The 49ers have won three straight and 11 of their last 14 versus the Redskins, including playoffs, and have gone 11-3-1 in this series all-time.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Obviously everyone will be looking to see how Griffin bounces back from a subpar game and the ensuing fallout.
Injuries have limited Griffin to 17 games since the start of last season and appears to have sapped him of his dangerous mobility as well. In his limited action this season, he has run for 89 yards on 18 carries while completing two touchdown passes with four turnovers.
Things won't get easier this weekend, with left tackle Trent Williams questionable with a knee and ankle injury and the Redskins going up against the league's fourth-ranked defense.
"Very tough defense. They make you earn every single thing you get," noted Griffin of the Niners. "They don't give up a lot of big plays and they play with passion. So we are going to have to match that going into their house and they are not going to make it easy for us."
San Francisco will surely try to get to RG3 early and duplicate last weekend's success. Borland became the first rookie linebacker in team history to grab two interceptions in one game, while cornerback Chris Culliver, safety Eric Reid and linebacker Michael Wilhoite all adding interceptions.
That five-pick performance boosted San Francisco's league-leading total to 16, and the club is limiting opposing quarterbacks to an average passer rating of 74.3 that ranks second best in the NFL.
The 49ers have had success despite not having linebacker Navarro Bowman all season due to a knee injury and fellow inside LB Patrick Willis missing time and eventually going on injured reserve because of a toe issue.
Harbaugh's defense, though, did get Aldon Smith back after the outside linebacker finished up serving his nine-game suspension, though the added depth caused some issues versus the Giants.
Displeased with falling into a three-man rotation with Smith and rookie Aaron Lynch, linebacker Ahmad Brooks lashed out at defensive line coach Jim Tomsula in the second quarter and was benched for the remainder of the contest.
Brooks said this week that he reacted out of character, but did not pull himself out of the game. He also said he apologized to the team and Tomsula and expects to play this weekend.
"Words that were said by me obviously couldn't be taken back," Brooks said. "So they decided not to put me back in the game for the remainder of the game, but we're moving forward as a team."
Harbaugh wouldn't discuss Brooks' upcoming role, saying the club never talks about scheme, but did back his linebacker while noting defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and his staff always determine playing time and rotation.
"Emotions played into it when it shouldn't. We've got to overcome something like that. I trust Ahmad Brooks, believe in Ahmad Brooks. (I) know he's going to make a vital contribution to our team has he always has," said Harbaugh.
"Nobody has answered the bell more than Ahmad Brooks has for this football team."
Sunday's matchup will feature the two running backs with the longest active starting streaks. San Francisco's Frank Gore has started in 54 straight, followed by Washington's Alfred Morris' streak of 42 in a row.
Each team is looking to overcome some distractions, but the Niners appear better prepared to overcome the adversity.
For starters, the club's depth at linebacker makes Brooks' role much less pronounced and easier to brush aside, while Griffin will be under the world's eye each time he takes a snap.
And though he attempted to take the focus off his quarterback, Gruden may have gotten inside Griffin's head with the talks of fundamentals and that isn't good given the 49ers' ability to get after the quarterback.
It could be another long week for the Redskins and their starting signal- caller.
Sports Network predicted outcome: 49ers 27, Redskins 16
11/23 10:42:19 ET