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Questions Abound As To Why Redskins Can’t Convert On Third Down

By ZAC BOYER | @ZacBoyer

ASHBURN – Darrel Young has been asked the question for the better part of three years, and even he’s surprised he still doesn’t have an answer.

What is it that causes the Washington Redskins to struggle on third down?


“I think we’ve been last every year,” Young, the fullback, said. “You’ve got to start making plays, man.”

The Redskins enter today’s game against Minnesota with one of the most high-powered offenses in the NFL this season, ranking among the top five teams in yards per play, rushing yards per game and passing yards per play, and among the top ten in total yards and points per game.

When it comes to third down, however, the engine sputters dry. Washington’s 23.3 conversion percentage is the worst in the league, far below the 38.5 percent average of the other 31 teams and well behind Pittsburgh, which has converted on 51.9 percent of its third downs after Thursday night’s loss to Tennessee.

The raw numbers are even more striking. The Redskins went 1-for-9 in a loss to Atlanta last weekend, 2-for-11 against Tampa Bay, 3-for-12 against Cincinnati, 4-for-13 at St. Louis and 4-for-15 at New Orleans in the opener.

Somehow, Washington is getting worse.

“It’s not something that you need to press about, but it’s something that is a glaring issue for us right now,” quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “Teams are gonna try to exploit that, say ‘Hey, whatever we run on third down, these guys aren’t going to be able to move the ball and get first downs.’ We’ll be sure we clean that up, and that takes everybody.”

The Redskins’ only third-down conversion last weekend, which came on third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter, was mostly an aberration. Kirk Cousins entered the game after Griffin left the game with a concussion and completed a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, who reeled in the ball 26 yards from the line of scrimmage, took advantage of a missed assignment and was barely touched downfield.

Washington faced at least a seven-yard gain on third down six times against the Falcons and has completed only seven of 39 opportunities from such distances all season. But third-and-long is not artificially inflating the Redskins’ third-down failures; remarkably, Washington is 2-for-11 this season on third down from fewer than three yards and has not converted from such a short distance in the last three games.

“For the most part, we were in some integral situations – missed a third-and-two and a third-and-one running the ball, [plus] two drops,” offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “That’s four right there. That takes you to 50 percent if you make them, so we have to make those plays.”

The Redskins ranked in the middle of the league in third-down conversion last season when they prolonged a drive on 36.9 percent of their attempts. The year before, Young’s first, Washington was 31st at 29.8 percent.

“If we make a couple of those third downs, just three or four and you keep drives going, you’ve got a chance to have a dominating day,” head coach Mike Shanahan said.

Griffin has completed 21 of his 34 third-down passing attempts this season for 190 yards – an average of 5.6 yards per attempt, which ranks 25th amongst starting quarterbacks in the league. Tight end Fred Davis has caught five of those passes for 43 yards; fellow tight end Niles Paul, Moss and Joshua Morgan and running back Evan Royster have each caught three.

Minnesota, one of few teams to still run the cover-two defense that was a fad of the late 1990s and into the 2000s, should theoretically pose a problem for the Redskins. Zone coverage, schematically, is not particularly conducive to long passes.

The Vikings, though, have allowed conversions on 44.2 percent of third downs, which could give Washington a chance to make a play – and answer a question.

“It’s important, man,” Young said. “I can’t say we’ve got to take more pride, because guys are serious about what we’re doing on third down, but we’ve got to execute. We’re not executing and everything, and it looks bad.”