By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 24, 2007
MINNEAPOLIS, Dec. 23 -- Al Saunders, the Washington Redskins' offensive play caller, heard the yelling first, a chorus of voices in the coaches box above the field screaming, "12 men! 12 men!"
Quarterback Todd Collins had fumbled a hurry-up snap in the fourth quarter Sunday night at the Metrodome, and the ball had been recovered by the Vikings. With the Redskins' 25-point lead cut to 11, quality control coach Bill Khayat, assistant coach Bob Saunders (Al's son), and team videographers were alerting Al Saunders that too many Vikings had been on the field at the snap. Saunders, communicating to Coach Joe Gibbs on the sidelines through his headset, urged Gibbs to throw a flag for a replay challenge -- chanting, "Challenge it, challenge it, challenge it."
Gibbs, previously maligned for his in-game management, threw the red flag, the turnover was replaced by a five-yard penalty and tailback Clinton Portis moments later slashed through Minnesota's tired defense for a final touchdown in a 32-21 victory that leaves the Redskins (8-7) able to clinch the final NFC playoff spot with a win Sunday against division rival Dallas.
"That was a huge point of the game," Gibbs said. The play had been hurried because Saunders was worried that the Vikings were going to challenge Santana Moss's 23-yard reception -- "I didn't think he was in bounds, so we have an automatic quick-snap that I call," Saunders said. After Collins mishandled it, the Vikings were poised to take over at midfield with momentum and a boisterous crowd behind them.
Instead, the Redskins kept the ball and now have won three in a row for the first time since 2005 -- when they won five straight to reach the postseason -- rallying after the shooting death of star safety Sean Taylor. This was their best outing yet, dominating the first half to grab a 22-0 lead. Backup quarterback Todd Collins (22 for 29, 254 yards, two touchdowns and sparkling 124.8 rating) shined again.
Minnesota (8-7) could have clinched a postseason spot with a win but its NFL-best running attack was held to a scant 1.8 yards per carry in the first half. Star rookie Adrian Peterson managed just 27 yards on nine carries in the game as Gregg Williams, Redskins assistant head coach-defense, employed tactics similar to those used by legendary defensive guru Buddy Ryan.
The Vikings, who had won five straight, began unraveling on their first drive, with erratic young quarterback Tarvaris Jackson wilting against a six-man line. Former Viking Fred Smoot, who left the team under acrimonious circumstances, nabbed his first interception of the season on an errant Jackson pass and scampered 47 yards down the sideline.
The Redskins came a few inches from scoring when fullback Mike Sellers (who suffered a concussion but was doing better after the game) appeared to score but the touchdown was overturned on replay. Minnesota took over inside its 1 and surrendered a safety on first down. Emerging defensive tackles Kedric Golston and Anthony Montgomery generated a powerful push, knocking center Matt Birk backward, and fullback Tony Richardson failed to get the carry out of the end zone.
"I just got as much penetration as I could," Golston said. "It was a blessing to come off the ball the right way."
After the free kick, Collins led a touchdown drive, completing all three pass attempts for 55 yards and a touchdown, hitting reserve wide receiver Reche Caldwell on two key third-down plays, then finding tight end Chris Cooley wide open down the middle of the field for a 33-yard scoring play. Cooley and Moss both ran double-moves, and the safeties went to Moss.
"It was like stealing," Cooley said. "Easiest touchdown I've ever scored."
The teams traded missed long field goal attempts, then the Vikings turned the ball over on consecutive drives. Defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin shot through the gap, and as he reached Jackson, the quarterback jumped as he threw and cornerback Shawn Springs intercepted at the Minnesota 32.
Two plays later Collins found Moss isolated on rookie corner Marcus McCauley, who was filling in for injured star Antoine Winfield and was a regular target of the Redskins. Moss outmaneuvered McCauley for the 32-yard score, and Washington led 16-0 (the Redskins entered the game with one touchdown pass of more than 30 yards then had two in the first half).
The Redskins executed their four-minute offense to close out the half with an 80-yard touchdown drive. Five of the 10 plays were for 12 yards or more, including the final play. Tailback Clinton Portis (124 combined yards) took a pitch to his right then flung the ball to wide receiver Antwaan Randle El in the end zone for a 15-yard score.
"I ask for that play every week," Portis said. "This week it worked."
Washington led 22-0 at the half after a failed two-point conversion and Minnesota faced fourth-and-one on the opening drive of the second half. Peterson tried to surge inside, but was corralled by safety LaRon Landry and linebacker London Fletcher before he reached the line.
Williams, juggling personnel and making sweeping substations throughout the game in the humid indoor conditions, often employed four linemen and four linebackers, leaving just three defensive backs in coverage. It was the aggressive scheme of Ryan, his mentor, which is rarely seen in the NFL these days. Williams correctly gambled that Jackson (34.5 passer rating in the first half) could not exploit his three-man secondary, which proved to be true Sunday.
"Gregg brought some of his old Buddy Ryan packages out today," said Fletcher, one of Williams's longtime pupils. "It was so much fun playing that. Wasn't much pass coverage, but the thought process was to stop the run, first and foremost.
Sometimes Williams used five defensive linemen to stuff Minnesota's vaunted rushing attack, and he also flip-flopped defensive ends Andre Carter and Phillip Daniels, getting Carter lined up on young right tackle Ryan Cook, identified by the team as the weak link in Minnesota's talented offensive line, players said.
The additional manpower at the line of scrimmage negated the Vikings' ground game and Jackson was rattled by blitzes. The coaches also worked repeatedly with the corners in practice all week, players said, to refrain from jumping routes, with the scout team offense running "double-moves" (stop-and-go routes) against Springs in particular. The aim was to instill discipline, as evidenced on both interceptions.
"Our defensive coaches had a great game plan," Gibbs said.
The Vikings mustered just 70 yards in the first half, when the game was won. When Minnesota finally flashed a flicker of life late in the third quarter -- recovering an onside kick when trailing 25-7, the defense sacked Jackson on third down to force a punt. Jackson sneaked in for a score with 10 minutes left, but the Redskins forced Minnesota to make prolonged marches downfield, with time in Washington's favor, and the overturned fumble quashed any chance of a comeback.