When the Washington Redskins offensive coaching staff gathered on Monday to dissect the film of Sunday's loss to Green Bay, it did not take long for the talk to turn to the club's horrible performance on third down. The Redskins have been ineffective in converting on third down most every week -- a failure tied to their overall shortcomings on offense -- and were 1 for 10 on such opportunities against the Packers, below even their meager season standard.
Washington is second-worst in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (30.1), behind only Chicago, and just 13 for 56 on third downs over the last four games. The coaches have been harping on those numbers this week in practice, hoping to curb the slump Sunday in Detroit.
Coaches say it will take a better effort to make more accurate throws, run more precise routes and more adequately protect quarterback Mark Brunell to improve the team's third-down performance.
"The big thing is we've been in a lot of long-yardage situations, which multiplies the problem right there," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "But when we do get something up we're little bit off, maybe a high throw, maybe the shortness of the route, maybe a pressure [from the opposing defense]. What we're trying to get right now is if we can get all 11 guys consistent and stay on the field on third down, then we'll get more snaps. We're trying to tell our team that third down has been a real nemesis for us -- we're 30th in the league -- and it's more consistency than anything. . . . It's one guy on maybe every play who ends up slipping up, and it's magnifying our problems."
Washington's third-down woes began Sunday on the first drive against Green Bay. The offense reeled off gains of five, six, seven, nine and four yards -- showing signs of a long-awaited breakthrough -- then Brunell overthrew Taylor Jacobs on third and six and the Redskins had to punt. Brunell misfired on third-down passes throughout the game, and the Redskins failed to gain a first down on their final nine third-down chances in the game.
On most of those plays, the odds were stacked against them. The Redskins needed an average of 10 yards on their third-down opportunities against the Packers, a daunting challenge for any team, much less one whose offense is as anemic as Washington's has been; the Redskins rank 28th in passing yards and 31st in points scored. The playbook is limited when facing such steep yardage to go, Brunell said, as the team runs a bulk of its third-down plays with between two and six yards to go, and chooses from a smaller pool of largely passing plays with seven or more yards to go on third down.
Defenses can settle into comfortable alignments knowing the Redskins almost have to pass on third and long, and Washington's inability to complete more than 52 percent of its passes this season does little to improve the team's confidence.
"You go third and long, and your percentage of converting that [first down] is very difficult," Brunell said. "What defenses do is they back off, their safeties get deep, they get into a soft coverage and it's hard to find a place [to throw] in there. But that's for every team, not just the Redskins. You get in third and long, and your chances of converting go down."
The coaches observed receivers cutting their routes a bit short on several third-down tries, which would leave them shy of a first down even if the passes were completed, and the offensive line allowed sacks on consecutive third-and-long opportunities in the second quarter Sunday, which seemed to demoralize the team for a spell. Washington did not face third and less than five yards to go in the final three quarters of the game.
"It's kind of like a signal-caller's nightmare. Third and five [or more], the guy in the stands can call what's coming, you know what I mean," Bugel said. "Those are things we're trying to overcome. To throw the deep pass in the NFL, you need 3.5 seconds, so our linemen have to understand that, also. It's a combination of things. The coach approaches the team in the right frame of mind and says it's consistency, consistency, consistency, men. If the route says 12 yards, don't run 10; if it's 15, don't run 12. Those are the little nuances right now that we continue to work on."
Tackle Ray Brown agreed with Bugel's assessment and said the offensive line must do a better job of protecting the passer, particularly on third down. "We're part of the problem," he said.
Brown believes that if the team stays committed to running the ball well on first and second down, then the entire offense will improve. Washington quickly fell behind, 17-0, Sunday, which forced Coach Joe Gibbs to pass more than he would have liked, and running back Clinton Portis had a season-low 17 carries. When the Redskins are at their best, Portis is picking up four yards on first down and opponents must begin guessing whether Washington will be running or throwing on third down.
"We've got to do a better job of being aware of down and distance and try to get into that," Brown said, "because you can manufacture third downs and we just aren't doing that. We've got to control the tempo of the game; we've got to almost force our will on the other team, and we haven't done that. We miss a third and short or something like that, and all of a sudden it changes the complexion of the game. We've got to be locked in and get it done. . . . It's frustrating that it's taken us seven ballgames and we really haven't locked in offensively."