The most telling moment of the Washington Redskins' three-game losing streak may have been a crucial third-and-two play that came with about three minutes left to play in Tampa. With the Redskins leading by seven points and the Buccaneers down to their final timeout, the offensive line failed to open up much of a hole for running back Clinton Portis. He gained only a yard, and Tampa Bay won with a touchdown and two-point conversion on the following drive.
Washington (5-6) has blown fourth-quarter leads in the past two games as well, again failing to get those few vital yards or that critical first down late in the contests to protect a lead. Its fourth-quarter running game has often been ineffective, and the late-game passing even worse.
The Redskins consider themselves to be a physical, grinding, run-first offense, but have struggled on third and short, throwing frequently in those situations. The result? Washington is 2 for 14 on third-down conversions in the fourth quarter of the past three losses.
Controlling the tempo of Sunday's game in St. Louis, particularly in the late going, could be essential, particularly against a Rams offense that can score in bunches. "As an offense, we've got to keep the ball and not put it back in their hands," Portis said. "The last three weeks we had an opportunity to put the game away, and we put the ball back in the other teams' hands and ended up coming up with the short end of the stick. So things have to change around here. We've got to move the ball, and we've got to do better. We know their offense puts up outstanding numbers, and we've got to keep them off the field. The only way to stop their offense is for us to sustain drives, and convert third downs, which has been killing us late in the season."
To that end, Portis (ranked ninth in the NFL with 943 rushing yards) donned another costume during his weekly news conference yesterday, this time calling himself "Reverend Gonna Change," a reference to the offense's late collapses; he said he had planned to curtail his media theatrics, given the three-game losing streak, but changed his mind at his teammates' urging. "They said we need something positive around here," Portis said.
Portis was an integral part of the Redskins' running game last Sunday against San Diego's top-rated rush defense, with Coach Joe Gibbs calling 13 running plays in the final quarter with his team leading by 10 points. But Portis gained only 36 yards on those carries and was held to a yard or less on five carries, getting stopped for no gain on his final two rushes.
The problem was worse on third down. Portis's seven fourth-quarter carries on second or third down picked up a total of 13 yards (1.8 per carry), with Washington unable to capitalize on first-down gains. Portis is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry in the fourth quarter overall this season -- the NFL average is 4.1 -- and over the last three games he has gained only 57 yards on 18 carries in the fourth quarter (3.2 per carry), and has just 10 carries for 27 yards on third downs this season, well off his 2005 average of 4.2 per carry.
"You want to try to keep the clock going and you want to get the first down with the run if you can," said running backs coach Earnest Byner. "So that's the philosophy that we lived, and sometimes died, with."
"There's a lot of frustration but I think our guys wanted to run it [against San Diego], and we ran it. It just wasn't quite good enough," said offensive coordinator Don Breaux.
The running problems and a slew of incomplete passes have resulted in short drives for the Redskins when they should be running out the clock. Of their 12 fourth-quarter drives the past three games, six have taken 63 seconds or less, and only three have lasted more than two minutes. Their average fourth-quarter drive against Oakland lasted 39 seconds; against San Diego it was 1:40. The third-and-short failures prompted Gibbs to joke that maybe the Redskins should "just fall on the ball twice," to ensure the third-and-long scenario in which Washington actually has prospered.
This week, offensive coaches worked well into Wednesday morning dissecting the third-down issue. "That's all we talked about," assistant head coach Joe Bugel said.
Breaux compiled a presentation breaking down the third-down trends, looking for reasons why Washington is 8 for 16 on third-and-two conversions and 3 for 12 on third and three. On those 28 opportunities, the Redskins ran only six times (successful twice, both on third and two) and converted just nine of 22 chances when throwing (41 percent).
"We kept coming up third and four, third and three [Sunday]," Bugel said. "That's the envy for a signal caller; you should be able to convert those, but it just blew up in our face. Then we'd get third and 15 and we'd hit it. We've been working into the wee hours on our third-and-two package and we know that we have to stay on the field there."
Several players expressed surprise that the Redskins have run so few times on third and two or three -- "That is surprising, but I don't have too much to say about it," tackle Chris Samuels said. "I leave that up to the coaches."
But Samuels and others also pointed out that when opponents stack the line of scrimmage in those situations it is not easy to gain yardage. Byner noted the Redskins often go to a shotgun formation against those defensive sets, but that basically negates the ability to run anything other than a draw play.
"We had been doing pretty good on third down up until the last few weeks," Byner said, "so you can't hardly argue with the method."
That makes refining the short-passing game a must. Washington is 0 for 12 throwing for a third-down conversion the last three weeks. The preponderance of passes to runs on third and two is not uncommon among NFL teams, according to Gibbs.
"I'd say when it gets back down to one-and-a-half [yards to go], there's a lot more running, but when you go two [yards] and above, it's probably a lot more passing all around the league," Gibbs said. "It's one of those things where it's a matter of us being better in the short passing game."