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Defenses Have Turned the Red Zone Into a Dead Zone for Cooley

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

When the Washington Redskins finally marched into the red zone Sunday, trailing the woeful Cincinnati Bengals by 17 points, Coach Jim Zorn prioritized where he wanted the ball to go. Tight end Chris Cooley, with the combination of size and skill to create match-up problems for the defense, was the obvious primary target for quarterback Jason Campbell on the play Zorn called.

But at the snap, Cooley was quickly under assault from the Cincinnati defense. The Bengals bracketed Cooley with a linebacker and a defensive back, leaving him no room to get open. "They attacked him," Zorn said. "They just attacked him."

Campbell had to quickly scan for other options and was able to find wide receiver Santana Moss on a crossing route deep in the end zone for a touchdown. Yet the play was a perfect example of one of the Redskins' greatest frustrations this season: the inability to get Cooley open for touchdown passes. He has caught only one.

"We don't go into the red zone and discount what I can do," Cooley said. "We practice it every week. I have plays every week that I feel confident with, and I know the coaches feel confident in those plays, and we continue practicing getting me the ball. And it hasn't worked out."

This has hardly been a lost season for Cooley. He's going back to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl in February with the best players in the game, and he remains the fulcrum of the passing attack. Cooley leads the team with a career-high 73 receptions (second among NFL tight ends), and his 764 receiving yards are 22 shy of his career best.

But the lack of scoring plays has dogged him and the entire offense. An explanation can be found in at least three areas: poor play by the rookies who were supposed to develop into other options for Campbell, offensive line issues that have forced Zorn to use Cooley as a blocker more often, and, finally, his past success. Defenses know about his skills.

"You're going to force someone other than Cooley to beat you in the red zone," one defensive coordinator said. "You do whatever you have to do to double him on third down and down there, and see if anyone else can make a play."

When presented with that scouting synopsis, Cooley, Zorn and Campbell did not dispute it. "That's kind of what happens," Cooley said. "You probably would try to stop whoever you consider the biggest threat in that situation. That would be your first idea."

Cooley has had at least six receiving touchdowns in each of his previous four seasons, but his lone score this season came on a rare gadget play -- an option pass from wide receiver Antwaan Randle El on Oct. 5 at Philadelphia -- and Campbell has attempted just eight red zone passes to Cooley all season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, an indication of just how smothered he's been.

"There's maybe been one or two chances during the year where we probably could have had a chance to get him a touchdown, and it just didn't happen," said Campbell, who has reviewed film of the red zone failures exhaustively. "But not too many."

(Zorn does not want his young quarterback forcing balls to Cooley into tight coverage near the end zone, in general, with the Redskins mired in so many tight games and turnovers critical. Campbell leads the NFL in fewest interceptions per pass attempt. "Jason's ball security has been awesome, really," Zorn said.)

Owner Daniel Snyder and Vinny Cerrato, executive vice president of football operations, tried to remedy the issue in the offseason, drafting three bigger pass catchers in the second round -- tight end Fred Davis (6 feet 4, 257) and wide receivers Malcolm Kelly (6-4, 227) and Devin Thomas (6-2, 220) -- planning for them to alleviate pressure on Cooley (6-3, 257) on third down and in the red zone, where there is a need for larger, possession receivers.

The NFL's elimination of the force-out rule made it much more difficult to complete fades to Washington's impish receiving corps -- a route that had been effective in the end zone in the past -- and Cooley remains the only Redskin able to post up defenders coming out of the slot or off the line, then hold them off or compete for jump balls on intermediate routes.

With Cooley's primary backup, journeyman Todd Yoder, lacking speed and elite athleticism, the Redskins spoke often in the preseason about Davis offsetting Cooley. Zorn's West Coast scheme, at maximum efficiency, would feature two tight ends running vertical routes from either side, making linebackers and safeties choose where to focus attention.

But Davis (two catches for 21 yards) has been inactive three of the last four games, and Zorn has yet to be able to go into a game with Davis and Kelly -- his two best tall slot options besides Cooley -- both active, because of injuries and their struggles to adjust to the NFL. "There will be more flexibility [in the offense] as we get Fred more involved," Zorn said. "My problem is I couldn't get Fred and Malcolm both up. I'd love to have both those guys up."

With an aging and injury-prone offensive line wilting in the second half of the season, Cooley has had to pass protect more than expected, and when the Redskins use two-tight end sets thus far it has been to max protect the quarterback. The dueling 18-yard routes from multiple tight ends have not been possible.

"We're not there yet, but we'll get to that," Cooley said. "We'll continue building. Fred will get better and better and learn more and more and become a better player in the NFL."

In the meantime, as the Redskins surge deeper into opposing territory, Cooley will remain sandwiched between a safety and a linebacker, wondering when he'll catch his next touchdown pass from Campbell. It hasn't happened since Nov. 25, 2007, when Davis was preparing for a rivalry game against UCLA, and the Redskins were on the fringe of the playoff scene yet again.

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