Thursday’s game at Baltimore against the Ravens will provide a much better gauge of the team’s red zone fortunes. For the first time, coaches have devised a full game plan for a preseason contest, including specific strategies and plays for the red zone.
“I think most teams throughout the National Football League, the third preseason game — sometimes the fourth preseason game — you get back into the swing of things on how you do things during the season,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said. “You almost have to do it.”
Because it’s only preseason, the Redskins didn’t game plan specific red-zone plays for their first two opponents, though players don’t believe that forgives early shortcomings.
“That’s just an excuse, I think. We have to get it in there regardless,” said guard Kory Lichtensteiger. “Good teams get it in the end zone consistently, and that’s what we’re trying to work towards. We have to execute better.”
Opposing defenses also haven't game-planned for the red zone. And as opponents put forth more effort — beginning in Baltimore, where Ravens starters likely will play at least the first half — the task could become more difficult.
“Really, we’ve seen a lot of soft coverages in the red zone,” said quarterback John Beck, “which forces you to check the ball down and hope your guy can run for the touchdown. We haven’t had a lot of shots to the end zone.
“So different strategies by the defense dictate what you’re doing; if you’re taking shots to the end zone or if you dump it off and hope your guy runs to the end zone. The good teams always find ways to get in. We need to be a good team that finds a way to get in the end zone always.”
The team’s execution inside the red zone was an issue last year as well. The 2010 Redskins scored touchdowns 51 percent of the time they broke the 20 and settled for at least a field goal 81 percent of the time. By comparison, a well-oiled offensive unit such as Indianapolis’s reached the end zone 68 percent of the time last season and settled for at least three points 96 percent.
Quarterbacks need specific weapons to thrive in the red zone, and the Redskins feel they have more options this year. Tim Hightower, who punched in a one-yard run last week at Indianapolis, appears to be a powerful back who can hit a hole. Wide receiver Santana Moss was moved to the slot last year and is a tempting option on quick slants. He caught an 8-yard touchdown pass from Rex Grossman in the preseason opener against Pittsburgh.
In Chris Cooley, the Redskins have a tight end who’s been a particularly attractive red zone option the past seven seasons. While Cooley rehabs his knee, Fred Davis has been starting at tight end. He’s been targeted three times in two preseason games — but not in the red zone.
“If it wasn’t one thing, it was another,” Davis said. “Some guy getting flagged, someone missing a block. We just have to be all together on each part, just like we are driving down the field. We got to stay the same way when we get to the red zone.”
Among the biggest holes on the Redskins’ roster in recent years is a big receiver who could run a simple fade route to the corner of the end zone. Coaches had hoped 6-foot-4 Malcolm Kelly might blossom into that type of receiver. But he’s appeared in just 21 games in three years and has yet to play in a preseason game this year because of a foot injury.
The tallest options in the Redskins’ receiving corps are Jabar Gaffney and rookie Leonard Hankerson, who are both listed at 6-2. In Gaffney’s nine NFL seasons, 16 of his 19 touchdowns have come in the red zone. Hankerson has shown flashes of ability, but also has had some costly drops in both preseason and practices.
According to Grossman, one key is taking advantage of early downs when the team crosses the 20-yard line.
“It’s staying ahead of the chains, getting to second and five instead of second and 10, third and five or less, instead of third and long,” he said. “If you do that, the playbook opens up huge. There's not a lot of plays on third-and-goal from the 10.”
As they did last year, coaches say the offense relies on 11 players executing their assignments, wherever the team is on the field.
“The hard part is consistency in whatever you do,” Shanahan said. “There was some good things and there was some poor things. But I like the progess that we’ve made. Still got a long ways to go, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this report.