When you look for reasons why the Redskins are so good at moving the ball (fourth in the NFL with 410 yards per game) but in the middle of the pack in scoring (14th in the league with 23.3 points per game), you really don’t have to search very far. Their inefficiency in the red zone has cost them points and has cost them games.
The Redskins get into the end zone 40.6 percent of the time they have at least one snap in a series inside the opponent’s 20. That’s 30th in the NFL. Related to that is how they do after achieving a first and goal situation. They put it in the end zone 50 percent of the time, also 30th in the league.
During the bye week the coaches spent some time doing some self-scouting to see how they can improve in areas such as the red zone. Quarterback Kirk Cousins said that he had two main takeaways regarding what he can do from what the coaches found.
For one thing, he said that turnovers in the red zone need to be eliminated. He has thrown two red zone interceptions this year after having thrown none in his career coming into the season. One was meaningless, a garbage time play late in the opener against the Steelers on a tipped pass that the league later said hit the ground before it was controlled. The other was critical, an end zone pick by the Cowboys in Week 2 when the Redskins were nursing a three-point lead in the fourth quarter. Washington ultimately lost the game by four.
It is realistic to have a goal of zero red zone interceptions. Per Pro Football Reference there are 20 teams that have not thrown a red zone pick this year. As noted, Cousins had never thrown on coming into the year.
“We’ve got to get another streak going like that since the Dallas game,” said Cousins.
The other thing he talked about was tucking the ball in and running more often when passing targets aren’t available.
“I think there are times where in the rhythm of the play guys aren’t going to always be open,” said Cousins. “You know, if teams play max coverages and cover people, maybe everyone’s not open and that’s where I look and say, ‘Can I scramble? Can I make a play off-schedule?’”
Through eight games this year Cousins has run three times in the red zone. Two of the plays went for a combined loss of six yards. The other one came against the Lions when he ran 19 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 1:05 left to play.
The run in Detroit, however, was not an off-schedule scramble. It was the good old read option play and Cousins saw open spaces, pulled back the handoff, and took off.
Last year Cousins led the team in rushing touchdowns with five; all of them came on red zone runs. Some were designed runs like the one in Detroit, others were off schedule.
Avoiding interceptions obviously is a critical fix and tucking the ball and running can help out in some situations. But the red zone doesn’t need a tweak here and a little adjustment here. Game in and game out Cousins needs to complete more passes. Last year they had a 60 percent red zone success rate. Cousins completed 64 percent of his passes and posted a passer rating of 113.5.
It’s a different story this year. Cousins has completed 44.2 percent of his passes and he has a 72.9 rating. You don’t have to ask—yeah, that’s bad. Part of it is scheme, with teams focusing on taking away tight end Jordan Reed, Cousins’ favorite red zone target. But Cousins has to do his part and find other receivers.
The Redskins ability to make the playoffs for a second straight year may well hinge on their ability to turn red zone opportunities into touchdowns.