- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Washington Redskins are moving down the field but not scoring.

They’re getting into third-and-short situations but not converting.

They’re somehow getting double-digit leads but not winning.

Some of this is new territory for the Redskins, chiefly their ability to move down the field and build leads.

Some of this, however, is old territory for the Redskins, primarily the lack of scoring and the recent third down incompetence.

As the losses mount and the playoff aspirations flame out, the Redskins’ offense — which was humming along in October with games of 20, 19, 21 and 52 points — has leveled off, posting only seven touchdowns in Washington’s last four games.

“If you look at the big picture, we’ve done some good things, and we’ve had a marked improvement from last year,” quarterback Mark Brunell said. “We just find ourselves in a little bit of a rut right now.”

Marked improvement in some areas, granted, but also more of the same in the biggest area: Points.

Although the Redskins, through 11 games, are averaging 73.8 more yards of offense a game (332.5 vs. 258.7), those additional yards haven’t translated into points.

The Redskins averaged 12.5 points a game during a 3-8 start to last season and scored only 13 touchdowns. This year, they are averaging 19.7 points and have 23 touchdowns. Throw out the 52-17 destruction of San Francisco, though, and the Redskins are averaging 16.5 points a contest.

The Redskins again have a losing record (5-6 entering Sunday’s game at St. Louis), have struggled in the vertical passing game the last two games (in which Santana Moss has averaged only 58 yards receiving) and are in a third-down slump (9-for-29 the last two weeks).

“It just goes to show you that you can be on absolute roll and then all of a sudden hit a wall,” coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday after practice. “It’s hard to understand.”

Most alarming for the Redskins should be their lack of offense in the second half.

Following Clinton Portis’ 8-yard touchdown run with eight minutes remaining at Tampa Bay on Nov.13, the Redskins have gone 11 fourth-quarter drives without points. Only one drive has lasted longer than four minutes, and the offense’s 67 plays during the stretch have gained a measly 102 yards, which means the Redskins’ defense stays on the field too long.

Which begs this question: Does Gibbs get too conservative when the Redskins have a lead?

Washington led 35-28 late against Tampa Bay, 13-3 at halftime against Oakland and 17-7 midway through the third quarter against San Diego … and lost all three.

“There’s no question that we pull our horns in a little bit,” offensive coordinator Don Breaux said. “But I think when you’re the kind of team you want to be, running the ball in the fourth quarter is critical. I’ve seen many teams that are doggone good offensively but haven’t been able to sustain leads. To get where we want to be as an offense, we have to be able to run the ball when everybody knows you’re going to run it.”

In third-and-short situations, when teams generally run, the Redskins have struggled, converting only 35.5 percent on third-down distances of 2 to 6 yards, including a dismal 8-for-16 on third-and-2. The Redskins are almost better off in third-and-long plays; they have converted 50 percent of their third-and-7 snaps and 56 percent of their third-and-9 plays.

“There’s no way in this world that it should work out like that,” Gibbs said of the long conversions. “Maybe we ought to fall on it twice to make it third-and-10.”

The Redskins ranked 28th (31.7 percent) on third down last year; this year, they rank eighth (41 percent) but have converted only 16 of 44 third-down attempts in the last three games, including a dismal two of 14 (14.3 percent) in the fourth quarter.

The lack of success on third down has resulted in nine three-and-outs the last two games, compared to 21 in the first nine games. Translation: The offense isn’t staying on the field, giving opponents more chances to rally.

Right guard Randy Thomas doesn’t buy the sit-on-a-lead theory.

“I don’t believe in that sitting-on stuff because every play is designed to score,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’re doing that at all. We take our shots.”

But the shots aren’t working. Moss averaged 5.9 catches and 103.9 yards through nine games and five catches for only 58 yards the last two weeks.

“We’ve gotten the ball to Santana some,” Breaux said, “but would we like to get it to him more? Yes.”

The Redskins will look to get untracked against a St. Louis team ranked 29th in yards allowed and last in points allowed. If not, the whispers of an offensive slump will become loud roars.

“It comes down to making plays,” Brunell said. “We had some critical third downs that we weren’t able to convert, and that’s when you have to be able to shine. The teams that win play their best football on third down to keep moving down the field. We haven’t been one of those teams lately.”

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