But none of those miscalculations are what has caught Gruden off guard the most.
“The struggle of the defense on third down, probably the most surprising and disappointing, really,” Gruden said. “When we were 6-3 last year before Alex [Smith] got hurt, we were playing really good defense and protecting the ball. I thought that might be the key to our success this year, with a new quarterback and some new offensive linemen, a bunch of new receivers. … I still have a strong feeling that the defense will get better and play better moving forward.”
The Redskins’ third-down defense has been horrific, allowing opponents to convert an NFL-high 63 percent of opportunities. Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals were the most porous third-down defense in the league with a 49 percent conversion rate allowed, which tied for the worst in the NFL since 2000.
Washington simply hasn’t been able to get its defense off the field, which has equated to long drives that wear out the defense. In Monday night’s loss to Chicago, four of the Bears’ drives lasted at least nine plays, and three resulted in points. The Dallas Cowboys had four drives of nine or more plays in Week 2, and they scored on each one. The Philadelphia Eagles had four in Week 1, including a 19-play drive in which they converted four third downs. That drive was the longest by any team in the league this season.
The Bears blew the game open with a 21-point second quarter with touchdowns on three consecutive drives. The Redskins struggled on first and second downs, allowing Chicago to get into short-yardage situations on third down. When they finally forced the Bears into third and 17 from the 36-yard line, Mitchell Trubisky threw a long touchdown pass to Taylor Gabriel over Josh Norman.
“We’ve just got to find a way to get off the field, and one way we can help ourselves with that is having better first and second downs,” outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “When you can put a team in third and long, your chances go up of being able to get off the field. Even at that time, you have to make plays and get off the field. Haven’t done that the first couple games."
Kerrigan explained that opponents can call anything in the playbook on third and short, but in longer situations, the defense can focus on a finite number of options that could be called.
“Ultimately, you’ve just got to execute the defense and execute the call, beat the guy across from you,” Kerrigan said. “Can’t overcomplicate it.”
Linebacker Jon Bostic wasn’t so concerned about the third-down distance.
“We all have to play together,” Bostic said. “Pass rush has got to work with coverage. Coverage has got to work with the pass rush. Guys just have to do their job. That’s really what it comes down to. Third down is a money down. Pass rushers like to go eat. For us on the back end, we’ve got to go cover. Inside, we’ve got to run and hit and cover it well. … Guys have to understand the situation better. … We’ve got to play better situational football.”
Things could come a bit easier for the Redskins’ defense this week, facing a rebuilding New York Giants team that will be without star running back Saquon Barkley, who is sidelined with a high ankle sprain. But the Giants’ rookie quarterback, Daniel Jones, is coming off a stellar professional debut, having earned NFC offensive player of the week honors after throwing for 336 yards and two touchdowns in a 32-31 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first game after replacing longtime starter Eli Manning.
The Giants were 6 for 13 on third downs, and their game-winning touchdown was a seven-yard rush by Jones on fourth down. The rookie quarterback’s mobility — particularly on third downs — will be something the Redskins have to keep an eye on.
“That’s the money down,” Giants Coach Pat Shurmur said. “When you’re in the red zone and especially when you’re on third down. I thought [Jones] did a good job throwing the ball accurately. I thought he did a good job of handling some of the pressures. There was some adjustments that he had to make to the protection that he did effectively. Then there was a couple of times when he scrambles, which the ability to extend the drive by using your feet is important.”
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