Offense, Defense See Third and Opportunity

Marcus Washington sacks Donovan McNabb.
Marcus Washington sacks Donovan McNabb. "The whole defense has a different attitude," Washington said. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 21, 2007

In the first two games of the season, the Washington Redskins have been the NFL's most effective team on third down, cumulatively, on both sides of the ball. The statement seems illogical when viewed through the prism of 2006 -- when the Redskins failed offensively and defensively on third down -- but the reversal has much to do with Washington's 2-0 start.

The Redskins are the only team ranked in the top four in third-down efficiency on both offense and defense -- the offense was well below average and the defense downright awful on third down last year -- performing at levels not achieved since a run to the playoffs in 2005. With 14 games still to be played, much could change, but the early indications are better than anyone could have expected.

Quarterback Jason Campbell, in his first full season as a starter, is the catalyst for the offense, displaying poise and elusiveness against the blitz even on third and long, while defensive players such as rookie safety LaRon Landry and first-year starter Rocky McIntosh and new middle linebacker London Fletcher are making timely contributions on third down.

The result is that the offense is ranked fourth in the NFL on third-down chances and the defense is ranked first with only eight third-down conversions allowed.

"In the offseason we knew some of the areas we were deficient in, and we tried to strengthen ourselves both for a personal standpoint, and then what we do" schematically, Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Certainly, third-down passing was a big deal for us, also our defense has played much better on third down over there. It's a big deal. They say up here that defense leads you, and it really does, and in these first two games they've taken a leadership role."

There were only two times last season when the Redskins' offense converted at 50 percent or better. Not coincidentally, that was the only time they won consecutive games, beating Houston and Jacksonville to pull to 2-2 before the season fell apart. Dating from the third quarter of the opener, the Redskins are on a 13-for-21 tear on third down (62 percent), and their 15 third-down conversions overall are tied for second best in the NFL.

"To be honest, it's pretty amazing the numbers we're putting up on third down, it really is," center Casey Rabach said. "And hopefully we can keep it going that way. We've had a really good play selection and the players are making the plays and things are really working for us."

Campbell is earning respect for his knack for making good things happen on third down. "You can't be one-dimensional," Gibbs said. "That's why I'm so thrilled with Jason being able to get out of the pocket and making some plays with his feet."

He has succeeded on all three of his third-down runs to this point -- including a 12-yard run on third and seven in Week 1 -- and helped maintain drives even when facing slim odds (the Redskins are 7 for 16 on third down when needing six yards or more -- 44 percent). His footwork, foot speed and strong arm are a combination that keeps defenses guessing.

"The whole offensive line has done a great job protecting me and letting me look for deeper routes when we're in third-and-long situations," Campbell said. "And the guys do a good job of running and getting open. It all works hand in hand."

The Giants, Sunday's opponents, have allowed opponents to covert on 54.5 percent of their third downs, worst in the NFL this season. "For one reason or another we can't get off the field on third down," New York middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said.

Washington's defense is experiencing no such problems. Opponents are 4 for 20 on third down dating from the third quarter of the Miami game. Of the 29 third-down situations they have faced, 20 times the opponent has been at third and five or longer. Last season the Redskins held a team below 40 percent on third-down conversions just four times all season and they allowed quarterbacks to compile a 109 passer rating on third down, a staggering figure. They are playing much better in those situations now, though still have just one takeaway after setting an NFL record with only 12 last season.

"When you're as good as we've been on third down the last two weeks, that's sometimes as symbolic as take-aways," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense.

The Redskins are preventing deep balls in their zone defense and generating an improved pass rush as well. Washington finished last with 19 sacks in 2006, including only four sacks on third down, but have three third-down sacks already this season. Williams is keeping offenses guessing on third down, alternating between prevent defense shells (cover-2) and more aggressive cover-1 blitzing schemes, and the increased speed of the entire unit manifests itself on third down.

"I think the whole defense has a different attitude," linebacker Marcus Washington said. "We're all kind of playing for each other out there and nobody is trying to really do too much, and everybody's kind of taking care of their responsibility and when they have a chance to make a play they make it. And that's really all you can ask for."

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