- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Want to know why the Washington Redskins are 2-0? Look no further than their play on third down.

No defense has been better at stopping opponents on third down than Washington’s, and only three offenses — all in the AFC — have been more effective at keeping drives alive on third down than the Redskins. No one else in the NFL ranks in the top five in both categories.

“It all works together,” Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said. “The offense wouldn’t be getting opportunities without the defense doing its job. You’d like the offense to make first downs, control the time on the clock and score points. And the defense needs to get them off the field. Last year, we really struggled with all that. Who knows what’s going to happen going forward, but so far we’ve played well.”

That’s a huge turnaround from last season, when the Redskins tied for 18th in third-down offense and ranked 26th in third-down defense. Those statistics were major factors in Washington’s 5-11 record.

“When you emphasize something and you’re determined to get better at it, you’ll probably make strides in that area,” said associate head coach-offense Al Saunders, who worked hard with Campbell and the offense on third downs during the offseason. “Third-and-3 or more generally you’re going to throw the football, so there’s a lot more stress on the protection unit, a lot more stress on the receivers to run routes more precisely and a lot more stress on the quarterback. All of those would tend to get better over time. Jason is more experienced in those situations.”

The Redskins have the NFL’s fourth-best rush offense, but that hasn’t meant a lot of third-and-shorts. Nor have Washington’s opponents had to face a bunch of third-and-forevers.

On average, Washington has needed 6.4 yards to gain a first down, while its foes — Miami and Philadelphia — have needed 7.5 yards to convert. Washington’s opponents on Sunday, the New York Giants, are last in third-down defense and eighth in third-down offense.

“In two games, we’ve had one takeaway, but we’ve been dominant on third down,” Redskins assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams said. “We’ve got our hands full this week. The Giants have only punted five times. [Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride] has always done a very good job on third down.”

Cornerback Carlos Rogers noted that the defense is healthy, unlike last year when cornerback Shawn Springs and tackle Joe Salave’a were hurt at this point. He said Williams has simplified the scheme and “is just letting us go out there and play.”

Center Casey Rabach credited the improvement on third downs to an enhanced understanding of Saunders’ scheme, Campbell’s development and the power of fullback Mike Sellers, who has six carries — compared to 12 all last year — and is 2-for-2 on third downs.

“Everybody’s on the same page,” Sellers said. “And just keep giving me the ball.”

Excellence on third down doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps. The only team in the top six in third-down offense and defense last year was NFC runner-up New Orleans. Three of the other top four in offense made the playoffs, as did the top two on defense.

In 2004, the first year of Gibbs’ second tenure, Washington’s defense was second in the league on third down. But that couldn’t make up for the offense’s 28th-place ranking as the Redskins went 6-10. The next year, Washington tied for sixth in third-down offense and seventh in third-down defense en route to its first playoff appearance in six years.

None of Washington’s touchdowns have come on third down, however, while the opponents’ only touchdown did.

Which brings up the missing element, the red zone. The Redskins have converted only one of their four third downs inside the opposing 20-yard line, Campbell’s 18-yard pass to backup tight end Todd Yoder that preceded Clinton Portis’ clinching touchdown in Philadelphia.

“Third downs are very important, but now we’ve got to score some touchdowns,” left tackle Chris Samuels said.

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