The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For the Redskins, 0-3 would mean doom. Here’s what they need to fix.

The Redskins have work to do to avoid an 0-3 start, which usually spells doom. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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Darkness looms for the Washington Redskins after two straight losses to start the season. A third loss Monday night against the favored Chicago Bears would almost certainly sentence the Redskins to a fourth straight season without an appearance in the playoffs. And if Washington did somehow turn its season around and qualify for the postseason, the outlook for a team that started 0-3 would not be optimistic.

There have been 176 NFL teams to start a season 0-3 since 1980, and only six of them went on to make the playoffs. The Houston Texans performed the miracle last year before losing, 21-7, to the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round. Four of the other five teams to rally into the postseason — the 1981 New York Jets, 1982 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1995 Detroit Lions and 1998 Buffalo Bills — also lost in the first round after clawing their way to a playoff spot. The 1992 San Diego Chargers are the only team to win a playoff game after an 0-3 start. They beat the Kansas City Chiefs, 17-0, in the wild-card round that year but got smoked by the Miami Dolphins, 31-0, in the divisional round.

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If the Redskins are going to right the ship and avoid the dreaded 0-3 start, here is what they need to fix immediately.

Pass rush must live up to expectations

The team invested heavily in its defensive front, but so far the return on that investment has been dismal. The Redskins have managed 20 pressures (sacks, hits and hurries) on the quarterback, earning them the third-lowest pass-rushing grade this season from the game charters at Pro Football Focus.

The pass rush is not there,” Coach Jay Gruden acknowledged this week.

“And when we do get the pass rush, we’re not tight enough in coverage,” he said. “So it’s a combination, really. I’m not blaming the pass rush. I’m not blaming the coverage. So we might have to get some more exotic looks to make the quarterback hold the ball a little longer to get home with the pressure.”

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In Week 1, Washington pressured Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz on just 11 of his 41 dropbacks. And when Wentz did face pressure, it wasn’t effective. He completed 9 of 10 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in those situations, taking just one sack. In Week 2, Washington’s defense pressured Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott a mere six times on 33 dropbacks, making him the third-least-pressured passer of the week.

Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky does not respond well to pass pressure, giving the Redskins an opportunity to neutralize the Bears’ passing attack Monday night. Two games into this season, Trubisky’s passer rating has dropped from 82.2 when he’s not pressured to 22.9 when he is. For reference, an incomplete pass carries a passer rating of 39.6. In other words, Chicago would have been better served if Trubisky simply threw the ball to the ground every time he faced a pass rush rather than try to make a play.

Stop opponents on third down

The Redskins are allowing opponents to convert nearly two-thirds of their third-down attempts this season, a league high. They have been poor against both the run and the pass, allowing 7 of 9 attempted conversions on the ground and 11 of 19 through the air. That ineffectiveness has led to a whopping 7.2 plays allowed per drive this year, also a league high and almost two plays per drive more than the league average.

More plays equals more scoring opportunities, and Washington’s opponents have taken advantage. More than half (53 percent) of Washington’s opponents’ drives are ending in a touchdown or field goal; only the tanking Miami Dolphins are worse at 61 percent, while the league average is 34 percent. The Redskins are surrendering 14 more points per game than expected after taking into account the down, distance and field position of each play against them.

Better second-half adjustments

Gruden is either getting outcoached in the second half or his team is fizzling after halftime, and neither possibility inspires optimism. The Redskins have outscored their first two opponents 27-21 in the first half, but they have been outscored 42-21 in the second. That second-half point differential is the second poorest in the league, ahead of only the Dolphins. Their opponents’ scoring rate (2.1 points per drive in the first half compared with 4.7 in the second), plays per drive (5.8 vs. 8.7) and frequency of three-and-out drives (40 percent vs. 11 percent) have all improved in the second half, which has forced Washington to become one-dimensional on offense.

The Redskins rushed the ball on first-and-10 12 times out of 18 plays in the first half this season. That’s dropped to just three rushes out of 16 first-and-10 plays in the second half.

Washington’s highest-paid players need to step up

Josh Norman, Ryan Kerrigan, Brandon Scherff, Jordan Reed and Paul Richardson Jr. account for the five biggest salary cap hits on this roster, but only Scherff is living up to expectations. According to Pro Football Focus, Scherff has allowed no sacks, no hits and only two hurries over 123 snaps, making him the fifth-best right guard of 2019. The other players on this list need to do more.

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Norman has been targeted seven times this season, allowing five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown for a near-perfect 153.3 passer rating when opponents target him. Kerrigan has one sack, three hits and three hurries through two games and is the fifth-worst edge rusher of 2019, per Pro Football Focus. (Rookie Montez Sweat, a first-round draft pick, has been the third worst.)

Reed has been in the concussion protocol since the preseason and has yet to suit up for a game. And Richardson, signed to be a deep threat, has caught seven of 10 targets for 52 yards and a touchdown. His longest reception a 17-yarder against the Eagles in Week 1. His average depth of target — the distance past the line of scrimmage for each throw — has also dwindled from 15.3 during his final year with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017 to 12.2 last season to 8.6 in 2019. Whether because of play-calling or the change at quarterback, Richardson is now being used more conservatively, negating a significant reason for his signing.

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