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Third down not a charm

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For two seasons, third-and-long meant warm up the punter for teams facing the Washington Redskins' defense. After stops on first and second downs, the Redskins' aggressiveness was on full display.

But in losses to Minnesota and Dallas to start this season, third down, especially third and long, has become the Redskins' biggest foe. They enter Sunday's game at Houston ranked 25th in third-down defense, after allowing the Vikings and Cowboys to go a combined 15-for-33.

"That's a part of the game that, if you win on third down, you give the offense more chances and if you don't, you keep giving the opponent chances to score," middle linebacker Lemar Marshall said. "It's been very frustrating."

The Redskins ranked second and 11th the last two seasons on third down, a product of an active system that, while not always sacking the quarterback, pressured him into errant throws.

But without Shawn Springs at cornerback, the Redskins have had to throttle back their tactics. The safeties have played more coverage to help out the cornerbacks. The linebackers have also floated back to defend the underneath routes. And the defensive line hasn't been able to push back blockers.

"We haven't gotten into the type of rhythm we're used to, which is three-and-outs," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said.

The Redskins have forced only six three-and-outs in 23 possessions. They also have no interceptions and just two sacks (in 71 drop-backs). On third down, Brad Johnson was 10-for-15 passing for 183 yards and Drew Bledsoe was 8-for-12 for 134 yards.

The aggravating part for the Redskins is three-fold:

• They're not horrible on first down, allowing 5.03 yards a snap. Minnesota averaged only 3.9 yards a first-down attempt.

• The Vikings and Cowboys excelled on third down when they had 5-plus yards to go. Even though the Redskins knew a pass was coming they couldn't stop it. Minnesota had five conversions when it needed 5 or more yards. Dallas had six such conversions.

• The defense has 10 penalties (two others were declined) for 121 yards, including two that have extended drives.

"We definitely don't need to play as many reps," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "It's our job to stop people."

At the root of the Redskins' third-down troubles is a slow start.

Minnesota went 4-for-4 on third down in the first quarter, posting gains of 12, 46, 4 and 7. The Vikings later converted a third-and-7 play and three third-and-9 chances.

Dallas was just as good in the first quarter Sunday night, going 3-for-4 with gains of 12, 9 and 34 yards. But in what has to be considered a bright spot/improvement, the Cowboys were forced into three consecutive three-and-outs in the second quarter.

"That's progress from [Minnesota] and we did a good job taking [Terrell Owens] out of he game, but what's hurting us is the deep pass," cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

Just like penalties, the long gains are coming at the wrong time for the Redskins. Rogers, Mike Rumph and Kenny Wright have all been called for coverage penalties in the two games.

"We're an aggressive secondary and a couple of those penalties have hurt us," Rumph said. "We have to be careful with the face mask calls and the grabbing and tugging and play more straight-up football. You have to do that within the means. The team that adapts to the rules the fastest and knows how to get away with things the most gets an edge."

The Redskins hope that when Springs returns -- he might practice today -- they can use more of their man power to rush the passer. But more production from the defensive line is required, too.

"That's on us," Wynn said. "We had opportunities against Dallas. We look forward to getting the pass rush going because we need to start coming up with some big plays."

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