When Robert Griffin III lay on the turf Sunday, concussed by the hit of a charging linebacker, it was easy to overlook the secondary problem that resulted from the play. Not only was Griffin lost for the game with a head injury, but the Washington Redskins also had failed to convert another third down.
This one, third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, meant the Redskins had to settle for three points instead of seven in what was a tie game at the time.
As Griffin pushes toward playing against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, he and his teammates on offense are determined to improve their 23.3 percent third-down conversion rate, which ranks worst in the NFL.
“It is something that is a glaring issue for us right now,” Griffin said. “Teams are going to try to exploit that and say, ‘Hey, whatever we run on third down, these guys aren’t being able to move the ball and get first downs.’ We’ll make sure we clean that up, and that takes everybody.”
The search for answers leads many directions. Ask around Redskins Park, and you’ll hear different specifics from each player or coach.
They do agree, however, that the problem is complex and that everyone has a role in fixing it.
“I don’t think it’s ever one thing in particular,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “It’s a little different thing each week. We have to get better in all areas.”
One key, it seems, is improved blocking.
Lost blocks have led to sacks that put the Redskins in low-percentage third-and-long situations, and they also have contributed to failed rushing attempts in third-and-short.
And the problem there is widespread.
It’s offensive linemen or tight ends or receivers, depending on which play you examine. A missed block on first or second down can set up third-and-long, or a breakdown on third-and-short can thwart that play.
“It’s just simple mistakes we’re making as a team,” receiver Joshua Morgan said. “Maybe a blocking breakdown; maybe a miscommunication on the call; maybe a drop here, a drop there; a wrong route. We’ve just got to get better as a whole.”
A familiar refrain cites the need to avoid third-and-long situations. The Redskins are 14 of 60 on third downs this season, and 31 of those third downs have required at least 8 yards.
Defenses have an advantage in third-and-long because they can safely expect a pass, and they can play soft, safe coverages. Morgan says the Redskins typically see Tampa 2 coverage in third-and-long. Defenses play with two deep safeties and drop a linebacker to cover the middle of the field.
“It’s real hard to get third-and-long when they’ve got Tampa 2,” Morgan said. “They’re going to sit there at the sticks. They’re going to drop eight and hope you mess it up.”
Where the numbers really get interesting, though, is third-and-short. Although the Redskins consider avoiding third-and-long a panacea, they haven’t been better in short-yardage third-down situations.
The Redskins are 0 for 10 this season on third-and-2, -3 and -4. Even when they can keep a defense guessing whether they will run or pass, success has been elusive.
Take, for example, Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Running back Alfred Morris was stopped short on separate carries on third-and-2. He lost 2 yards when defensive end Kroy Biermann shed right tackle Tyler Polumbus’ block, and he gained only 1 when linebacker Sean Weatherspoon penetrated inside left tackle Trent Williams.
“Last week we got some penetration that kind of hurt the play, kind of made us bubble in the backfield,” Morris said. “We just have to get better at third downs.”
Players at every position understand their role in ensuring improvement against Minnesota.
If the Redskins are to be an elite offense, correcting that flaw is the top priority.
Griffin knows he must lead that push. On third down this season, he’s 20 of 33 passing for 195 yards and a touchdown. His passer rating is 87.3.
“In the past game, we had a couple drops, and then there’s plays out there that I could’ve thrown a better ball,” Griffin said. “I look at the receiver and they look at me. We all know who has to come up and make big plays for us. We’ll make them.”
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