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Paul Zimmerman
January 25, 1988
The Redskins dug deep to beat the Vikings for the NFC title
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January 25, 1988

Winning Ugly

The Redskins dug deep to beat the Vikings for the NFC title

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How would you like to be Denver Broncos coach Dan Reeves, who has to draw up a Super Bowl game plan that takes into account not only the likes of Dexter Manley and Doug Williams, but also a collection of numbers so far down on the Washington Redskins roster that you need a shovel to reach them? Who were those obscure Redskins defenders who raised such hell with the Minnesota Vikings and beat them 17-10 in Sunday's NFC Championship game? Where did they come from?

From the far end of the Washington bench, that's where. Skins defensive coach Richie Petitbon sent in the no-names in waves and gave them a game plan that was wild and unorthodox. "Oh, we used the whole package today," said Washington middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "Safeties coming in and playing linebacker, five-man fronts, four-man, three-man sets with four linebackers, we did it all. We blitzed more than we have all year."

Said Viking quarterback Wade Wilson, "I was facing a bunch of guys I'd never seen." One of them was rookie safety Clarence Vaughn, who barely got enough playing time for his varsity letter this season. On Sunday he took over as the regular nickelback and made some big plays, including a sack and a couple of hits that turned receptions into drops. Another was Ravin Caldwell, a linebacker who spent 1986 on injured reserve and who hurt himself again this season when he made a tackle in the preseason without his helmet. Caldwell got a sack against Minnesota, plus a few hurries. Kurt Gouveia, another backup linebacker, was also injured for all of '86 and got minimal playing time this season. He had a sack on Sunday, too.

But at the end, when Minnesota had the ball on the Skins' six and a shot at tying the game, All-Pro Darrell Green, the cornerback with the sore ribs and breathtaking speed, saved the day. On fourth-and-four, Wilson tried a curl pass to halfback Darrin Nelson, whose route took him just short of the goal line. Nelson dropped the ball as Green made the hit. It was a bang-bang play, and it ended a game that wasn't very artistic, but certainly was unusual.

The Redskins had one fewer sack (eight) than their quarterback, Williams, had completions. The Skins put together only two real drives all day. They ran off six straight three-and-out series in the second half, and for the first time, Williams, who ended up completing nine of 26 passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns, heard boos from the RFK Stadium crowd. But the offensive line contained the Vikings' big pass rushers, Chris Doleman and Keith Millard, and Williams was never sacked.

Moreover, the Washington pass rush refused to give Wilson time to go deep. As a result, Anthony Carter, who had set a postseason record with 227 pass-catching yards against the San Francisco 49ers the week before, was not the weapon Minnesota hoped he would be. He was covered by Green, who wasn't fully recovered from the painful rib-cartilage injury he had suffered the previous week while making an extraordinary 52-yard TD punt return against the Chicago Bears. Bending over was a problem. So was straightening up. And running 50 yards to stay with a burner like Carter? Well, the Skins would have to see. Green took a pregame shot of a painkiller and lined up against Carter, man-for-man. Washington's defensive scheme called for Green to cover the MDR (Most Dangerous Receiver) wherever he was on the field.

Partly because of Green's courageous coverage and the pressure on Wilson, the Vikings went deep to Carter only once, late in the third quarter, and the pass was incomplete. Carter caught seven passes, but for only 85 yards. The Redskins' all-out defensive scheme was not the only reason he wasn't more effective. Minnesota had chosen an ultraconservative offensive design as well.

In the old days, when Jerry Burns was the Vikes' offensive coordinator, they ran one of the most imaginative attacks in the business. Option plays, inside reverses, three-back sets, power-I alignments, no-back alignments—you name it, they did it. For a few years Minnesota battled the San Diego Chargers for the honor of passingest team in the NFL.

But, when Burns became the Vikings' head coach last season, he turned the offense over to Bob Schnelker, and it fell more into line with traditional NFL thinking, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Vikes became predictable. In a late-season loss to the Bears, for instance, Minnesota was stopped four times on goal-line running plays and then three more times when it tried to kill the clock with runs. One first down, one dink pass, and the Vikes would have won, but they went traditional and lost.

The same kind of thinking haunted them again on Sunday. They had third-and-one on the Skins' 33 on their first possession. Washington's pass rush hadn't gotten nasty yet. Wilson was making yards on his scrambles. But the drive ended when D.J. Dozier tried to go off-tackle and was stuffed for a two-yard loss. As we shall see, Minnesota would later make a similar mistake in a much costlier situation.

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