The next snap came from the 7. Hightower ran right. Dallas linebacker Sean Lee broke through Washington’s line. And Hightower fell, a two-yard loss.
“Terrible,” Hightower said.
“That’s bad,” Coach Mike Shanahan said.
Faced with third and nine, the Redskins were all but beaten. “You’ve got to stay out of those third and longs anywhere on the field,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said, “but especially in the red zone.” Quarterback Rex Grossman looked for Hightower in the flat, but Lee broke up the pass. The Redskins settled for a 27-yard field goal from Graham Gano — points, but not as many desired.
“We have to capitalize when we get down there,” Grossman said. “Three points aren’t good enough in this league.”
Headed into Sunday’s matchup with the Rams (0-3) in St. Louis, Kyle Shanahan considers the Redskins’ (2-1) production inside the opponent’s 20-yard line “normal.” Indeed, they have scored touchdowns on six of their 14 trips into the red zone, a 42.9 percent conversion rate that ranks a middling 18th in the 32-team NFL.
But the past two weeks — when the Redskins beat Arizona by a point and lost to Dallas by two — show how important each scoring opportunity is, and the ramifications of failing to convert. The Redskins scored two touchdowns on seven trips inside the red zone against Arizona, and barely hung on despite outgaining the Cardinals by 131 yards. They scored just one touchdown in three trips inside the 20 against Dallas and lost a game in which their defense didn’t yield a touchdown at all.
“You want to be good consistently, and usually the teams that move the ball and are the most consistent usually score in the red zone,” Mike Shanahan said. “. . . You got to be able to keep the defense off-balance, and you got to be at your best down there.”
Each Friday, the Redskins install their package of red-zone plays — a stripped-down version of the base offense designed specifically for each opponent. Shanahan would like his teams to score touchdowns on 70 percent of its trips inside the red zone — an average that would have led the NFL three of the past five years — and he believes performance there is paramount. But that doesn’t mean the final offensive installation of the week is necessarily complex.
“It’s not us going into the film room and coming up with some super-secret plan,” tight end Chris Cooley said. “It just comes down to us executing and doing what we have to do.”
There are, though, some realities when it comes time to select and run plays inside the 20. First, the compressed field — offenses are dealing with a maximum of 30 yards, from the line of scrimmage to the back of the end zone — means receivers can’t be sent deep, taking defenders with them and opening up underneath throws or running lanes. “It gets tougher the tighter you get down there,” Kyle Shanahan said.