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Washington Redskins failing on third-down conversions at historic rate

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 1:39 AM

Through nine games, the Washington Redskins have converted a league-worst 24 third downs - nine fewer than any other team. Twelve teams, in fact, have converted at least twice as many third downs. The numbers are so bad, in fact, that the Redskins currently have the worst third-down conversion percentage of any NFL team since 1991, when Stats Inc. began tracking such figures.

"I've never been a part of it like this before," said offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. "I think we're all frustrated with it."

The low point came in Monday's loss to Philadelphia when the Redskins failed to reach the first-down marker a single time in 10 third-down attempts. In 144 NFL games this season, only seven times has a team failed to convert a single third down. Monday's loss marked the first time the Redskins failed to move the chains on third down since 1993.

For Coach Mike Shanahan, it's a major point of irritation. Shanahan has often said that the hallmark of a good team - and a good quarterback - is the ability to extend drives. And his group is on pace to post a worse third-down conversion percentage than any other team.

When he returned to work on Tuesday morning, Shanahan went through each third down on tape. He wanted to be able to explain to his players when they reported to Redskins Park the next morning what was killing their drives.

"The third-and-three, what happened? The third-and-four, what happened? What happened on those plays?" Shanahan said. "What happened in the third-and-eight? What happened in the third-and-12? You go through those with the team and you say, 'Hey, this is the difference with keeping the drive going and not keeping the drive going.' "

If there was only an easy answer. Coaches dissected the 10 third-down failures against the Eagles and came up with nearly as many different explanations.

"When you go by it one by one, you notice that it's not one guy, it's all 11 guys," said Kyle Shanahan. "It's not all 11 at the same time. It's just one guy on each play. And that's all it takes."

Against Philadelphia, the Redskins faced third down and needed five or fewer yards six times. The third-and-short situations are especially aggravating, Mike Shanahan said.

"We should have made those plays," he said. "One guy away. But that's why you keep on working."

But on the season, there have been a disproportionate number of third-and-long situations. On two-thirds of the team's 111 third-down attempts, in fact, the Redskins have needed six or more yards. The league average is only 50 percent, according to Stats Inc. The Redskins have converted 13 of 74 third and long tries - 17.6 percent - worse than all but two teams. The league's average conversion percentage on third and long is 26.6.

That means the Redskins third-down difficulties actually begin on first and second down.

On average, the Redskins have needed 8.35 yards on second down in order to the move the chains, which ranks them No. 26 in the league. It means that on third down, the Redskins are usually looking to pass and, as a result, quarterback Donovan McNabb has been heavily pressured.

Many of McNabb's struggles come on third down. On first down, he is completing 64 percent of his passes (78 of 122) and averaging 8.84 yards per attempt, with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

On third down, by comparison, McNabb is completing only 42 percent of his passes (36 of 85), and averaging 5.47 yards per attempt. Now in his 12th season, McNabb has never had a third-down completion rate lower than 50 percent.

This year, he has just one touchdown and four interceptions - including two Monday against the Eagles - on third downs.

"It's collective miscues, it's timing issues, whatever it may be, it's collectively," McNabb said. "I take part in the whole thing."

While the Redskins' receivers have been sharply criticized by some corners of the fan base, they have dropped only 10 passes in nine games, according to Stats, Inc. Only two teams have dropped fewer. According to Stats, Inc., only 60 percent of the Redskins' 315 pass attempts this year have been catchable, a lower percentage than all but two other teams.

Coaches aren't putting all the blame on McNabb - or any other player.

"It's definitely all of us," said Kyle Shanahan. "They have a part and so do we. When players don't execute it, we're the ones coaching them to do it. So it's on us, too."

Kyle Shanahan is the one charged with calling the plays on third down and after reviewing film, he says he is "comfortable" with his selection.

"I'd like to call some that would start working, but I'm definitely happy with those plays," he said. "We put a lot of time into it."

In Monday's embarrassing loss to the Eagles, the Redskins managed to put 28 points on the board without converting a single third down, an obscure feat that Mike Shanahan said was highly unusual. Players know that if they could manage to extend a few more drives, their offense would have more chances at the end zone.

"If we clean that up, it's a whole different ball game," McNabb said.

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