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NFL Preview - San Francisco (6-4) at Washington (3-7)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The struggles of a pair of dynamic, young signal callers will be on display inside the Beltway on "Monday Night Football" when the embattled Robert Griffin III and his Redskins host San Francisco and its reeling frontman Colin Kaepernick.
RG3 and Kaepernick both burst onto the NFL scene in 2012 with the former earning Rookie of the Year honors after willing the Redskins to an NFC East title, and the latter taking his club to the cusp of a Super Bowl title after replacing Alex Smith midway through the campaign.
Each has the dual-threat ability that is en vogue now in the league but the sequels to their breakout seasons have been uneven at best.
More than a few around Washington are calling for Griffin's head in the form of a benching after last Sunday's ugly 24-16 loss at Philadelphia, one in which RG3 had four net passing yards in the opening half.
Griffin did, however, lead a furious fourth quarter comeback for the Redskins and finished with 264 yards on 17-of-35 passing with two touchdowns and an interception. Alfred Morris added 93 rushing yards on 22 carries.
Griffin's lone interception, though, came on Washington's final drive of the game and was a back-breaker.
The march, which started on Washington's own 4-yard line, was highlighted by Santana Moss' 28-yard grab on 3rd-and-25 following a facemask penalty on fellow wideout Pierre Garcon. Griffin eventually led Washington all to way to the Eagles 18-yard line but, on 3-and-1, he was hurried and tossed a prayer off his back foot into the waiting arms of Brandon Boykin.
"Well you always have another choice," 'Skins coach Mike Shanahan said of the tainted toss. "Any time it ends in an interception, you always have another choice. It was 3rd-and-1, the quarterback's always trying to make a play at one of the hardest positions in sports to play. And there's going to be many decisions like that through the years and you grow with them. You'd always rather have it 4th-and-1 than an interception, we all know that, so you've got to be able to throw the ball away at the right time.
"But he's trying to make a play."
The 49ers, meanwhile, will be trying to get Kaepernick, who has passed for a total of 218 yards over his past two contests -- losses to NFC South heavyweights Carolina and New Orleans -- moving in the right direction again.
During a controversial 23-20 setback at the Saints during Week 11, Kaepernick threw touchdown passes to Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis but amassed only 127 yards passing and was intercepted once as San Francisco fell 3 1/2 games behind the powerful Seattle Seahawks in the NFC West.
New Orleans benefited from a questionable personal foul penalty on Niners linebacker Ahmad Brooks but also limited San Francisco to 196 total yards and a season-worst 81 on the ground.
Brooks sent Drew Brees to the turf with a punishing hit late in the fourth quarter, forcing a fumble that fellow linebacker Patrick Willis recovered. Brooks, though, was flagged for his high tackle, and the extended possession resulted in Garrett Hartley's game-tying 42-yard field goal with 2:06 on the clock.
"I felt like I hit him with my chest, like I bear-hugged him ... kind of hard," Brooks said.
The officials were put to the test again when Kaepernick threw the ball away near his own goal line on the ensuing drive. The quarterback was ruled outside the tackles, but even though the call went the 49ers' way, they had to punt with just under two minutes remaining.
Fair-catch interference on Kassim Osgood put the ball on the Saints' own 40- yard line, and Brees quickly completed 3-of-4 passes for a total 41 yards to move into field-goal range for the game-winner.
This will mark the 30th meeting between the two clubs with the 49ers leading the all-time series 18-10-1.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
This is all about the struggling quarterbacks and their continued accuracy issues.
Both have mediocre passer ratings with Griffin slightly ahead at 83.6 to 81.8. RG3 has completed 59.7 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, while Kaepernick is ranked 31st in completion percentage at 56.2 with only 11 touchdown passes.
What's supposed to set these two apart is their running abilities and Griffin ranks third among QBs with 345 yards on the ground while Kaepernick is right behind at 335. RG3 has yet to regain his pre-injury explosion, however, and 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh seems spooked to loosen the reins on Kaepernick because backups Colt McCoy and McLeod Bethel-Thompson can't run the same type of offense.
"If you're talking about Robert or if you're talking about a guy like Kaepernick, everybody comes from different systems and when you go to the National Football League and you're working with a drop-back passing game and you haven't done a lot of that," Shanahan said. "It takes some repetition. Whoever has been in those shoes realizes that it doesn't happen overnight."
Former four-time Redskins All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green evidently expected it to be happen overnight for RG3 and he was the first to take aim at the former Heisman Trophy winner on SHOWTIME's "Inside the NFL" before the debacle in Philadelphia, saying he wasn't sure he was seeing the leadership necessary from Griffin.
"I think that's the problem," the former Redskins star said. "I think it's super important to have leadership, and I don't think he really is the leader. I don't know if they have a leader."
After the Eagles setback, Moss seemed to agree with Green, taking issue with RG3's reluctance to take the blame for a woeful game-ending interception in the end zone.
"If we're going to win games, we need to win games with our guy (Griffin) saying, 'At the end of the day, I didn't make a play,' regardless of if it wasn't him," Moss told WJFK Radio. "As a leader, you understand that if you're involved in the situation, whether you're the receiver, the quarterback, the guys making the tackle, whoever -- regardless of the outcome, good or bad, you have to at some point, stand up and say me or I."
Decision making is also a legitimate concern with Griffin. He was able to convert the 3rd-and-25 on Washington's potential game-tying drive against the Eagles, along with two other third downs but he still wasn't all that sharp. When defensive end Fletcher Cox put on a strong rush as the seconds waned, instead of putting the football in his pocket for a potential fourth down or throwing it away, RG3 lofted an ill-conceived pass down the seam which Boykin easily corralled.
Former Washington quarterback and current Redskins Radio Network analyst Sonny Jurgensen was far more blunt in his assessment of Griffin, saying he should have been benched in favor of fellow second-year man Kirk Cousins on at least two different occasions during the broadcast.
"Why not play Cousins?" Jurgensen said during the third quarter, before clarifying: "It's not pulling the plug, it's getting a change. Make a change. Can it be any worse? You get four yards passing in a half? I would look at the other quarterback, see if he can make something happen. It's not the end of the world. They take out pitchers, don't they?"
For what it's worth Shanahan believes Griffin's lack of an offseason due to the ACL injury stunted his growth as a player.
"You need reps. You need repetition." the veteran mentor said. "I think the biggest growth from the first year to the second year is those 10 weeks of just going back and doing things that you haven't done before. That's what you miss besides training camp.
"So when you take the first nine, 10 weeks of the season and you take maybe the first three weeks before we start our first game, he's getting all those reps right now. The more reps he gets, the more comfortable he's going to be, especially in game-type situations."
Kaepernick isn't facing quite the firestorm RG3 is because he has the far superior supporting cast and some of his hiccups have been masked.
"I think he's doing a heck of a job," Harbaugh said when asked about Kaepernick's perceived poor play. "I guess I'd be puzzled to why people would think that (he is struggling). He's been consistently good. He's been like that every week he's been backup or a starter."
The 49ers biggest issue is that they have no playmakers outside the numbers and Kaepernick, despite his prodigious arm strength, has produced just 24 pass plays of 20-or-more yards, good for 30th in the NFL.
That number and the aforementioned 218 passing yards over the past two games hardy back up Harbaugh's consistently good narrative.
Help is on the way in the form of receiver Michael Crabtree, who returned to practice this week for the first time after suffering a torn Achilles back in May. Crabtree, though, probably won't be activated for Monday's game meaning Kaepernick will have to finds other ways to get the ball down field for at least another week.
"We'll see," Harbaugh said of activating Crabtree. "I think he's close."
Griffin's numbers aren't as bad as Kaepernick's but he's taking hits from all directions as the architect of Washington's dismal 3-7 start.
The 49ers, on the other hand, still have a swagger about them and understand while Seattle may now be an untenable goal in the regular season, the postseason is still within reach.
"I think we are (surprised at the struggles) but we still have six more to go and we can still finish 12-4," Kaepernick said.
The Niners should start that process this week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 27, Redskins 21
11/22 13:13:59 ET