Why the fourth-down pass to Santana Moss against the Vikings was a good call

Marcus Sherels, Santana Moss

The Vikings’ Marcus Sherels pushes Santana Moss out of bounds on a fourth-down attempt on Thursday night. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The Washington Redskins‘ 34-27 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was the latest in a long line of disappointing defeats this season. One of the things I’ve seen most heavily criticized is Kyle Shanahan‘s play-callling, particularly the fourth-down call, during which Santana Moss was unable to get both feet inbounds for a game-winning touchdown. I actually felt like it was a good call, looking back at the situation, but that appears to be an unpopular opinion.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen has been, “Why didn’t Kyle run the ball on the first three downs?” Well, he did in fact run the ball on first down and got lucky that the Vikings burned one of their time outs. From then on, Washington had little time on the clock and no time outs. They couldn’t afford to run the ball and risk not scoring because time would have expired. Kyle had no option but to pass on second and third down.

Then I saw people question why Shanahan opted to go to Moss instead of Pierre Garcon or Jordan Reed, who had caused the Vikings plenty of trouble all game. Maybe he could have gone back to them, but on second down he went to Reed followed by a slant to Garcon on third down. So he did go to those two first, and they couldn’t come up with the ball. So instead of doing what the Vikings expected by going back two one of those two, he went to Moss.

I’ve also heard plenty of people ask “Why are we throwing a fade to our smallest receiver on the key play of the game?” That’s a common misconception. The route Moss ran was a corner route, not a fade. The intent of the play was to drop the ball over his shoulder and trust Moss to be able to get both feet in bounds. At no point did they ask Moss to go up and high-point the football over the top of a corner, as they had done with Reed for a touchdown against the Bears.

So what actually happened on the play and why did I like the call? On both second and third down, Minnesota had run a “Cover-0″ defense. In Cover-0, the defense sacrifices safety help over the top to guarantee they can bring one more rusher than the offense has blockers. It requires players in coverage to play man-to-man coverage and not to break a rule: never allow a receiver to cut into the middle of the field. With no safety help, the middle of the field is wide open, so defenders must take an inside alignment to force the receiver outside, even if it means they give up a step on the receiver to the outside. Cover-0 is a good, aggressive red-zone defense, one which the Redskins themselves are big fans of. Having run it the previous two plays, Kyle Shanahan had a good indication that Minnesota would run it a third time.

4th down 1a

That’s precisely what the Vikings did. As you can see above, Minnesota had nobody in the middle of the field. They matched up five defenders against the Redskins five receivers, and sent the rest of their defense to go and hit Robert Griffin III.

4th down 1b

So Kyle Shanahan responded by calling a corner route for his best slot receiver, Moss. As I wrote earlier, defensive backs are taught never to allowed a receiver inside on Cover-0, even if it means they give up a step to the receiver on the outside. With no help over the top and the receiver playing for inside leverage, Moss should get a fairly open route to the back corner of the end zone.

4th down 1c

The defender sits on the inside, allowing Moss to release freely to the outside. Griffin just has to make a good throw and it should be a touchdown.

4th down 1d

But with the Vikings running Cover-0, inevitably they get quick pressure. left guard Kory Lichtensteiger does his best to slow down the extra rusher as he bursts through the B gap, but the pressure is enough that Griffin isn’t able to properly step into his throw. Instead, Griffin is slightly leaning back as he throws, causing the ball to sail on him just a touch more than he’d have liked.

4th down 1e

When I say just a touch, I mean just a touch. The ball is nearly perfect despite Griffin not being able to step into it. Moss has to reach out for it slightly more than he would like, which is why he just failed to tap his second foot down before he went out of bounds. But in a game of inches, everything matters.

So despite the play falling just short of being executed, I’m a fan of the call. A corner route against Cover-0 is a good look for the offense, particularly in the red zone. They were marginally off on this occasion, but I feel like if faced with the same situation, the Redskins could be confident calling this play again and executing it better.

Mark Bullock is The Insider’s Outsider, sharing his impressions of the Redskins’ play without the benefit of access to the team.

What’s ahead:

● Mike Jones’s mailbag, mid-day.

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