By Jason La Canfora
Monday, October 27, 2008
DETROIT From a sheer tactical standpoint, as Jim Zorn recalibrated the X's and O's in his mind after the game, the Detroit Lions had "won" the play. The Lions had unleashed a fire-zone blitz on first and 10 from the 50 late in the third quarter, the Redskins' blocking scheme failed to account for the oncoming rusher, and it would take something extraordinary from a player to overcome the schematic mismatch.
Quarterback Jason Campbell and wide receiver Santana Moss accomplished just that on a critical sequence Sunday, the most sparkling moment in what was a near-perfect afternoon for both. Campbell, developing at warp speed under Zorn's tutelage, read the blitz, anticipated and eluded safety Ramzee Robinson and flicked a pinpoint pass to Moss as he broke outside on a corner route. Moss navigated the right sideline for a 50-yard touchdown that gave the Redskins a 16-10 lead they would not lose.
"Perfect throw, perfect play, perfect situation," Moss said of Zorn's gamble to go with a five-receiver formation on that play, which forced Campbell to adjust.
"They tried to blitz us, and we didn't even have it protected," Zorn said. "This was a heroic play and throw by Jason Campbell."
That play was an anomaly Sunday; not much was aesthetically pleasing about this 25-17 victory at Ford Field, with the Redskins (6-2) largely playing down to the level of their winless opponent and succumbing to momentum-sapping penalties, turnovers and miscues. The precision between Campbell (23 of 28 for 328 yards and a 127.4 passer rating -- the best of his career) and Moss (nine catches for 140 yards) was exquisite, however, with the acrobatic wide receiver also returning a punt 80 yards for a score in the fourth quarter to give the Redskins a 12-point lead.
Moss flashed repeatedly throughout the game, putting up his first huge statistical outing this month after ranking second in the NFL in receiving in September. On Sunday, he feasted on the NFL's worst secondary, exploiting the seams in Detroit's cover-2 scheme, and outclassing defensive backs when allowed to roam in single coverage, as on the touchdown catch. As Zorn was scripting the opening 15 plays of the game last week, he made a point of writing the names of Moss and tight end Chris Cooley on his play card, aiming to establish both early. Moss caught a 20-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage, and a four-yard screen on the second. In all, five of Moss's catches were for 14 yards or more; three were for 20 yards or greater.
With the third quarter winding down, Zorn, who has been a bit more conservative with the play-calling in recent weeks, attacked. Campbell had no running back to help protect him, with an outside receiver and a slot receiver on either side. Cooley, the fifth receiver, also released from the line and ran a seam route down the middle of the field. The outside receivers each ran seven-yard curls, while the slot receivers, Moss on the right and Antwaan Randle El on the left, ran 25-yard corner routes, breaking toward the sideline where the ball would be thrown.
"It's the simplest concept in football," Cooley said. "Two corners [routes] and two hooks on the outside. It's called a 'smash' concept, and if they try to bring someone [blitzing], then the possibility of the deep ball is there. This team has to have plays like that. It's huge what Santana can do for us."
Campbell, the only starting quarterback who has not thrown an interception this season, looked at the Lions' 5-1-5 alignment (nickel defense), with no defender deeper than seven yards from the line, and detected Robinson creeping to the line on the quarterback's right side. A year ago he may have misread the play, but now he was certain that Robinson was blitzing, with struggling safety Kalvin Pearson required to pick up Moss in man coverage with no help from another defender.
"In my opinion, the difference is the way coach [Zorn] coaches the game," Moss said, with Zorn now the single voice in Campbell's head after years of trying to serve Al Saunders and Joe Gibbs simultaneously. "It almost seems like Coach is playing the game through Jason."
With so many routes being run at once, this play calls for Campbell to scan for any favorable matchups before the snap, and then decide which side of the field he will throw to, allowing himself roughly five seconds to process personnel and assess the pass rush.
"You pick your best side that you think you've got the opportunity to win on a certain route," Campbell said. "And that's the side I stick with."
Pearson was vulnerable, and Moss had told coaches and teammates all game about the success he was having when "No. 24" was on the field. The Redskins had tried to run this play, but usually faced zone coverage underneath the corner routes, negating their effectiveness. With Moss in single coverage with Pearson, Campbell's decision was essentially made for him. After the snap he locked in on the right side.
Robinson immediately sprinted off the edge for the sack, leaping slightly as he approached. Campbell's muscle memory took over, flashing back to the blitz avoidance drills Zorn emphasizes daily, and he coolly took a step to his left, kept his eyes downfield and stepped up to deliver the ball.
"It's a testament to what we do every day in practice," Campbell said.
Robinson sailed past Campbell, his ankles buckling as he tumbled to the ground a few yards behind the passer. "As a blitzer you've got to keep your feet," Robinson said, identifying his failure. Pearson was trying to keep up with Moss across midfield -- he had yet to break to the sidelines -- and when the receiver gave the impression he was turning inside, the safety was doomed.
"Santana sold it inside and gave him that head fake we always talk about," receivers coach Stan Hixon said. "He's obviously very coachable, and he did what he's supposed to do and the guy went for it."
Moss darted outside, reaching to backhand the beautifully lofted ball at the 24, contorting his body to begin a dash to the goal line, with Pearson and safety Daniel Bullocks in pursuit. After settling for field goals too often lately, Moss's mind focused on one thing: scoring. "Don't give in now," he said he thought to himself.
Bullocks lunged for him at the 5, his left hand slipping off Moss's left shoulder, then grazing the side of his body. Bullocks fell helpless to the ground. Moss bounded into the end zone.