- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Through a variety of reasons Thursday, the Washington Redskins proved it’s as difficult to convert a third-and-1 as it is a third-and-15.

A route cut off short of the first-down marker. A missed blocking assignment up front. A bad throw. A dose of bad luck. Nearly everything bad imaginable happened for the Redskins in their 16-7 loss to the New York Giants, a setback that saw them go 3-for-13 on third down.

When they needed 15 yards, they got 9. When they needed a yard, they got nothing.

As the Redskins start preparations for Sunday’s home opener against New Orleans, they are aware that staying on the field is paramount, primarily because the defense will have trouble enough stopping the Saints’ efficient offense without having to trudge back on the field after a three-and-out.

“We just need to execute,” center Casey Rabach said. “We’ve been put in good situations, and when our number is called, we need to complete the pass, get to the first-down [marker] on third-and-short and find ways to stay on the field and make first downs.”

Playing in 88-degree conditions last week, the Redskins’ defense was on the field for 19 of the game’s first 22 nonspecial teams snaps. The Giants sprinted to a 16-0 lead, and their first four drives lasted a total of 40 plays.

But to get better on third down, the Redskins have to be more effective on first and second down.

“Sometimes, first and second down tell more of the story about third down than third down does,” left guard Pete Kendall said.

The Redskins needed to travel an average of 8.2 yards a chance. That makes a team pass happy and allows the defense to rush the passer.

The Giants were 7-for-14 on third down and needed to make an average of 5.2 yards.

Those 3 yards make a huge difference. If an offense faces a third-and-5, it has options.

“It depends on the play caller and the [defensive] front,” Kendall said. “Some teams will try to force you to pass, and some teams will try and force you to run. With 5 yards to go, you could get a favorable box count, and the smartest thing to do the rest of the game to keep them honest is run the ball even if you don’t make it [a few times]. Later in the game, you might make a big play because you’ve shown them you will run it on third-and-5 or third-and-6.”

Facing long distances in the first half, Zorn had two choices: run to get a few yards of field position back or throw it, playing into the hands of a defense that is either sending pressure or clogging up the field with six defensive backs.

Zorn mixed it up on third down - run, pass, pass, run, pass in the first-half. But the Redskins needed 20, 12, 6, 1 and 11 yards on those plays and converted only the last opportunity, when Jason Campbell threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss.

In the second half, the Redskins remained one-dimensional on third down because of the distance and the score, averaging 7 yards an attempt. The conversions came on third-and-1 and third-and-2.

It’s the close distances teams must cash in on.

“You want to be about 40 to 45 percent on third down, and that’s outstanding,” Kendall said. “You might convert two third-and-20s a year. On third-and-1, you want to be well over 90 percent. You put yourself into third-and-short positions with positive plays and efficiency on first and second down.”

The Redskins came up 1 or 2 yards short of a first down three times - all in the third quarter.

“We’ve looked at every one of those third-and-short situations, and it hasn’t been executed,” offensive coordinator Sherman Smith said. “We’ve put ourselves in manageable third-down situations, and particularly in that third quarter we came up short. That’s crushing. If we can convert one of those to keep a drive going and score, you have a totally different ballgame.

“It’s all about execution. The plays that we called, we looked at the film and said, ‘Man, if we block it right, it’s an easy first down.’”

No first downs equals punts and no offensive tempo.

“If you’re three-and-out, three-out, it’s hard to get any rhythm in the running game or passing game,” Kendall said.

Zorn hopes the fact that the offense has played a full game within his system will result in improvement from Week 1 to Week 2.

“Now we can afford to play the whole game and get better and improve on things,” Zorn said. “You could tell they didn’t really know yet. Seven plays [against Jacksonville] doesn’t give you an opportunity to say, ‘OK, this is what we need to work on.’ Now we can look at every play and really see. Everybody has the opportunity to learn.”

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