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Jay Gruden seeks a cure for Redskins’ red-zone anemia

Offensive line coach Bill Callahan, right, works during minicamp with draft picks Arie Kouandjio and Austin Reiter, part of an effort to get better in the red zone. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Like any 4-12 NFL team, the Redskins have no shortage of problems crying out for help this offseason. Fixing the red-zone offense, which proved a major liability, should be a priority among them.

There are signs that Coach Jay Gruden is addressing just that as he heads into Year 2 of his contract.

Under Gruden, whom owner Daniel Snyder hired for his offensive prowess, the Redskins’ offense rolled up a respectable amount of yards in 2014, averaging 358.6 per game, good enough for 13th in the league. But much of that yardage amounted to squat; the Redskins scored a meager 33 touchdowns, tied for 24th in the league. And their scoring average — 18.8 points per game — ranked 26th.

The troubles began with futility on third down. The Redskins’ 31.5 percent third-down conversion rate was the team’s worst since 2010. And on occasions when the Redskins marched inside an opponent’s 20 yard-line last season, the unit performed poorly, scoring touchdowns less than half the time (47.9 percent). That ranked 26th in the NFL. The league average for red-zone touchdown percentage was 53.5.

The Dallas Cowboys, by contrast, finished No. 2 in red-zone scoring efficiency, coming away with a touchdown 64.7 percent of the time. (That’s just one benefit of having a Pro Bowl quarterback, Pro Bowl running back and three Pro Bowl offensive linemen.)

Here’s what Gruden and Redskins General Manager Scot McCloughan have done that ought to help:

● Hire away the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator/offensive line coach, Bill Callahan.

● Bolster the Redskins’ offensive line. The team used three of its 10 draft picks on offensive linemen: Iowa tackle Brandon Scherff (first round, fifth overall), Alabama guard Arie Kouandjio (fourth round) and South Florida center Austin Reiter (seventh round). Then they signed Duke’s Takoby Cofield (6 feet 4, 310 pounds), overlooked in the draft despite starting 42 consecutive games at left tackle, and demonstrated faith in his potential with a $25,000 signing bonus that was unusually generous for an undrafted rookie.

● Draft a physically imposing, pass-catching running back, Matt Jones (6-2, 231), to complement a cadre of speedy but small wide receivers.

“Even when he does run vertically (a tendency coaches are trying to break), he has the strength and power to run through tackles, which is interesting,” Gruden says of Jones, a third-round pick from Florida. “He’s been very impressive to us. His running style is unique. It’s a physical style, but he does have good change of direction – he’s shown that out in space – and good hands.”

Callahan said during minicamp that he’s researching every top offensive line in the NFL with an eye toward improving red-zone performance.

Eliminating penalties is one hallmark of those that thrive in the red zone, he noted. But the most significant variable is converting third downs.

“What I’ve learned over the years, it really comes down to third down in the red zone,” Callahan said. “It really comes down to your efficiency on third down … if you’re really looking at being more effective in the red zone. Those are the critical downs; are you gonna convert sevens or kick threes?”

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