By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 18, 2006
IRVING, Tex., Sept. 17 -- The Washington Redskins faced third and nine at the Dallas Cowboys 21-yard line late in the third quarter, when quarterback Mark Brunell lofted a wobbly pass toward tight end Chris Cooley in double coverage near the end zone. Trailing 17-10, this was their best chance to salvage something out of their first two weeks of the season -- yet another crucial third-down sequence -- and they failed again.
The pass was easily intercepted by safety Roy Williams at the 1. The Cowboys then drove 99 yards for a touchdown on their way to a 27-10 win, leaving the Redskins (0-2) in an early hole in the NFC East. On their drive, the Cowboys also faced a key third-down play. But they converted on third and 10 from their 34, picking up 26 yards on a screen pass. On the next play, quarterback Drew Bledsoe hit Terry Glenn for a 40-yard touchdown. That sequence typified Washington's winless season.
"We need to figure out how to get first downs," veteran tackle Jon Jansen said. "We've got to stay on the field. We've got to keep our defense off the field. We've got to win the time of possession. That was one of the keys coming into this game; if we kept their offense off the field then we'd have a good chance, and we didn't do that tonight."
Washington's ineptitude on third down -- both on offense and defense -- is largely responsible for its poor start. A slew of penalties, breakdowns and the offense's inability to produce under new associate head coach-offense Al Saunders have contributed as well. Like Minnesota in the season opener, Dallas regularly found success on third and long, while the Redskins managed to look worse on that crucial down than they did against the Vikings.
The Redskins went 4 for 13 (31 percent) on third downs in that 19-16 loss to the Vikings, while Minnesota humbled the defense by converting 9 of 17 opportunities, including several on crucial scoring drives. After Brunell threw his third-quarter interception on Sunday, the Redskins were 1 for 10 on third downs, the only conversion an utterly inconsequential running play that Dallas conceded in the dying seconds of the first half. Again, Washington failed to mount drives of consequence, undermining any chance to breed chemistry after yet another offensive overhaul this offseason.
"If you're looking for some answers for what we're doing, I don't have them," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "How it looks to you all, what we're doing with it, all we can do is what we do. I'm not the guy to give you no answers on that."
Against the Vikings, the Redskins had just 10 possessions, and were held to five plays or less on seven of them. On Sunday, through three quarters when the game was in question, the Redskins went three and out on five of 10 possessions, not including Rock Cartwright's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. On that 10th drive, which began at the Dallas 39, they managed just four plays, forcing the defense back on the field in humid conditions. The Cowboys held the ball for almost 32 minutes. Washington is now a dismal 6 for 27 on third down conversions (22 percent).
The only touchdown Sunday came on Cartwright's kickoff return. Washington's first-team offense, which failed to score a touchdown during an 0-4 preseason, has reached the end zone once through two games. Ten of Washington's 13 drives Sunday were five plays or less; 17 of 23 possessions this season have been five plays or less.
"We had a tough time last week, too," Coach Joe Gibbs said of the third-down struggles. "I don't think it's any one thing. Certainly, we've got to find a way to convert third downs, because that let's you keep the ball."
The Cowboys, meantime, charged to an early lead by converting on third and long repeatedly, as Washington went three and out on its first two drives, setting the tone for the game. Dallas's first third and long was converted thanks to cornerback Mike Rumph's holding penalty, and Bledsoe hit tight end Anthony Fasano for 12 yards on third and seven to set up the field goal for a 3-0 lead. Dallas never trailed.
On the Cowboys' next drive, facing third and six from the 38, Glenn pulled down a 34-yard pass, setting up the first touchdown. Running back Marion Barber dove in from a yard out on fourth down to make it 17-3 in the second quarter, and at that point the Cowboys were 5 for 9 on third and fourth downs, including two converted by Redskins penalties.
"We've got to find a way to get off the field on third down," end Phillip Daniels said. "It's really hurting us right now. We keep giving them up whether they get it by passing it or they get it by a penalty. We've just got to find a way."