Kirk Cousins uses play Kyle Shanahan helped make famous to beat 49ers

LANDOVER, Maryland -- After he left Washington four years ago, Kyle Shanahan shared one piece of information with Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins: The zone-read option would remain a part of his offense because he loved what it could do.

It also has remained a part of the Redskins' playbook. So the play Shanahan helped popularize also led to his demise Sunday.

Shanahan watched as the play he helped make famous with Robert Griffin III in 2012 led to the eventual winning touchdown by Cousins. His 7-yard run off a zone-read fake was the difference in Washington's 26-24 win.

"It does give defenses something to think about," Cousins said. "Kyle told me, 'I've learned after working with Robert that this is a really valuable play no matter who the quarterback is and I'll always carry it with me.' "

So, too, will the Redskins. Cousins has run the zone-read option four times this season, including two Sunday. They love running it in the red zone. Indeed, his first carry out of this look against the 49ers was a 2-yard gain from the 4-yard line. That time he ran it to his left and the 49ers were ready.

But on the final touchdown, end Arik Armstead crashed hard at the ball carrier and Cousins easily turned the corner. With the 49ers in man coverage on the outside, there was no one eyeing the quarterback off the snap.

Cousins isn't known for being a mobile quarterback, but the reason Shanahan and others like it is because it can work with less agile runners. Cousins, though, moves well enough.

"When Jay arrived we kept it and valued it," Cousins said. "As I started playing, it can still be a great play."

Gruden was never a big fan of the zone read, but he has kept it in the offense because he, too, sees it works. The Redskins have run the ball well inside the 10-yard line; they averaged 3.0 yards per carry in their first four games to rank fourth overall.

But the zone read provides them another wrinkle. And because they do run the ball -- and are committed to running it -- the defense must honor the back. It gives the offense another player who can block, negating any advantage by the defense with an eighth defender in the box.

"I don't love it, but I do like it," Gruden said. "Kirk is not exactly the read-option quarterback that you would be looking for, but he's very effective at it. Those are huge plays for us. ... Kirk's been pretty good, pretty effective really."

In 2012, Shanahan installed the zone read to capitalize on Griffin's talents. He could beat teams with his legs or his arm; Cousins was viewed as the pocket passer. But the mobility was evident, too, on bootlegs and rollouts.

And Cousins has used his legs more at key moments. He did that against Kansas City on a late drive to help tie the score. He did it again Sunday at a crucial time, an 18-yard scramble up the middle on a second-and-10. He looked like Griffin on that play, too, as he failed to get down and ran into the defender's shoulder first.

"We appreciated that and the intensity he plays with," Redskins left tackle Trent Williams said, "and the competitive nature he possesses. But that's an expensive shoulder right there; don't want to see him lowering it on anybody. I told him next time to think about sliding."

But offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Spencer Long told Cousins, "We kind of liked it."

Cousins has run the ball 19 times this season; he had a career-high 34 runs in 2016. It gives the defense something else to at least consider when preparing for the Redskins, as does the play Shanahan used to call quite a bit with a much different quarterback.

Cousins isn't exactly Griffin when running the ball. He doesn't need to be when the distance he must travel is less than 10 yards. It won't transform the Redskins' offense; it does provide occasional help. And it did help beat the coach who first put it in Washington's playbook.

"You just have to pick your spots, be smart with it, read it correctly," Cousins said, "and then usually you can get some yards."