- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2008

It was a situation in which a penalty couldn’t happen.

The play call, which had been set up throughout the game with a series of fakes and route combinations, would be scrapped. The strategy — go for a touchdown or settle for a field goal — would be altered. The personnel grouping, which would give the defense a clue of what was coming, would be changed.

Three Minnesota defensive players thought they had forced exactly that kind of drive-deflating error late in the second quarter of their game against the Washington Redskins on Dec. 23.

Leading 16-0, the Redskins had a first-and-10 from the Minnesota 15.

“Blue!” quarterback Todd Collins barked.

Fullback Mike Sellers leaned forward. Tight end Chris Cooley backed up a step.

Instantly, Vikings linebackers E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber and defensive end Jayme Mitchell pointed to the Redskins’ backfield wanting a false start.

The trio was mistaken. Cooley went in motion, Sellers stayed put and moments later, Clinton Portis threw a touchdown to Antwaan Randle El.

Several times each game, defenses think they’ve caught the Redskins in a false start or illegal formation or something that’s a penalty. There’s so much going on, it can’t all be within the rules.

“We’ve always done it,” Collins said. “It puts the defense at a disadvantage because they have less time to get set and check their coverage and it’s harder for them to recognize the formation.”

When the Redskins play Seattle tomorrow in an NFC wild card game, the offensive skilled players will be on the run … and then Collins will get the snap.

A hallmark of Al Saunders’ offense (besides its famous volume) is pre-snap shifting and motion.

“It’s as important as the play itself — the alignment, the shifting, the moving into a variety of positions,” Saunders said. “And we do it extensively.”

So extensively that if Cooley, Randle El, Sellers, Santana Moss and Clinton Portis — the Redskins’ five eligible receivers on the majority of the offensive snaps — were rewarded for yards covered before the snap, the Redskins’ salary cap would be shattered.

Upon signing with the Redskins in March 2006, Randle El got a first glimpse at Saunders’ play book. His initial reaction?

“I better get in shape,” he said. “You could be tired by the time the ball is snapped if you’re not careful.”

When Joe Gibbs called the plays, shifting was a prominent part. But Saunders took it to another level since arriving before the 2006 season.

“It takes a little while to learn but when you use the same terminology week after week, it becomes part of the culture,” Saunders said. “It’s difficult for [opposing] teams emulate in practice because if you don’t do it every day, it’s tough. We do it with every play in every practice.”

A play against Minnesota illustrated the orchestrated movement. On the first play of the second quarter, the Redskins had a first-and-10 from the Minnesota 43.

Cue the fire drill.

Randle El from tight end across the field to left slot receiver.

Cooley from tight end across the field to right slot receiver.

Portis from the left side to running back.

Moss from right side outside to right receiver.

And Sellers from running back to right tight end.

All at the same time.

A second later, Sellers went in motion to fullback, giving the Redskins a three-receiver, two-back formation. Portis ran for eight yards.

“When we shift like that, watch how many of the defensive players move,” Randle El said. “Sometimes, we’ll move one person and they have to flip the whole defensive line, bring a linebacker over to the [strong side] and the safeties switch. And then we try to get set before they’re ready.”

Indeed, the shifting caused Minnesota to regroup. The outside linebackers switched sides, the defensive tackles slid over, a cornerback came across the field and safety Darren Sharper shaded toward Moss.

“There are a number of reasons for moving before the snap, but we want to try and get an advantage, create some indecision on the defense’s part and get the matchup we want,” Saunders said. “You try to dictate how their front is aligned, the coverage they’re in and who is playing on whom.”

The Redskins use a variety of keys to start the shift — a word or hand signal and predetermined in the huddle.

When he gets to the line, Collins doesn’t concern himself with where the eligible receivers initially line up.

“I worry about how it’s going to end up — I let those guys take care of that,” he said.

The flip side is the Redskins will go several plays without a single shift.

“Sometimes we won’t to try and catch them in a coverage or front they don’t want to be in because they’re expecting us to shift,” Saunders said.

In those situations, Saunders might call for a “first sound” snap.

Motion is also a big part of the Redskins’ plan.

Against Dallas, the Redskins used motion on 35 of 71 offensive snaps. Seven players were used in motion, led by Sellers (13 times), Moss (nine) and Randle El (seven).

The basis of using a receiver in motion is to determine whether the defense is in man (the corner follows the receiver) or zone coverage (the responsibility is handed off).

“The advantage for a receiver is when the defense is in man coverage,” Moss said. “If I’m in motion, they have to back off.”

Despite all of the pre-snap business, the Redskins have only two delay of game penalties this season. Saunders said if the Redskins get to the line of scrimmage with eight seconds on the play clock, that’s enough time to run the shift and motion. And even if the clock is running down, Collins doesn’t panic.

“Todd knows the value of it,” Saunders said. “If the play comes in later because there was a long play downfield or requires more time to give directions, he can do the full shift at the line.”

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