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.
Take, for instance, that failed series against the Cowboys. Having second and goal from the 7 after Hightower’s opening three-yard run was fine, both Shanahans said. But the key play in the whole possession was the failed run and the tackle by Lee on second down.
“Why did you lose two yards on a running play?” Mike Shanahan asked Friday. The resulting third-and-goal situation, from the 9, made the circumstances quite difficult for the Redskins. Third and nine is never an enviable down and distance. It’s particularly heinous deep in an opponent’s territory, in part because there’s no “go” route for receivers to run that might clear out bodies.
“If they don’t come after you [with a blitz], there’s just not a lot of people open, and there’s rarely someone open in rhythm,” Kyle Shanahan said. “There’s just too many people in the end zone and not enough eligibles [players allowed to catch a pass].”
“They drop eight into coverage and they have their whole team in the end zone, and that makes it difficult,” Grossman said. “Third and four or less opens up the playbook a little more. So those first and second downs are crucial down there.”
Mike Shanahan agrees with those assessments. But after just three weeks, he bristles at the notion that the statistics reveal that the Redskins are struggling in the red zone. They did score three touchdowns in four trips inside the 20 in the season opener against the New York Giants. And he prefers to look at the red-zone trips on a case-by-case basis.
Against Dallas, the Redskins only nominally entered the red zone on one of their ventures — a third-and-five play from the 18, on which Grossman threw toward wide receiver Terrence Austin, who was cutting toward the left corner of the end zone. Austin slipped a bit, and the throw fell incomplete, but the read, both Shanahans said, was correct.
“Good play,” Mike Shanahan said. “We just missed it.”
The final trip inside the 20, in the third quarter, was textbook — a third-down play from the 19 on which Grossman found Hightower over the middle. Hightower then had successive runs of six and five yards, setting up first and goal from the 1. That perfectly set up a play-action pass on which Grossman found Hightower, wide open for a touchdown.
“We have the kind of system, we have that caliber of player where we all can feed off each other down there, with lots of options,” Hightower said. “That’s the frustrating part of this business, is not getting it done when we have what we need to do it.”
Mike Shanahan may believe the Redskins’ 14 trips to the red zone over three games are too small a sample, and the season is too young to judge. But he does know one other thing.
“We’re nowhere near where we want to be,” he said.