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Need to Know: Why did the Redskins struggle on third down in 2014?

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Need to Know: Why did the Redskins struggle on third down in 2014?

Here is what you need to know on this Thursday, July 2, 28 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.

 

Historically bad

When the Redskins do something poorly, they don’t mess around.

In 2013 when they had some bad special teams play, they were historically bad. Football Outsiders has been tracking special teams data since 1989. Of all the teams since then only one, the 2000 Buffalo Bills had worse special teams play than the 2013 Redskins.

Last year’s team improved the special teams from awful to merely bad but they did reach historic depths in a different important category. The folks at FO tell us that only three teams since 1990 have been as bad as the 2014 Redskins were on third downs. One of those teams was the 2002 expansion Texans so they should get a pass. For the record, the other two were the 2004 Bears and the 1992 Seahawks.

FO takes more into account here than the simple conversion percentage, which was 31.5 percent, 30th in the NFL in 2014. Although the post doesn’t specify, FO metrics generally take into account the quality of the opponent, success rate compared to the rest of the league, and other such factors.

When Jay Gruden and company were asked about third down problems the usual response was that they had too far to go on third down, that they needed to be in third and shorter yardage more often. But on the average third down Washington had 7.5 yards to go; the league average was 7.3 to go. That’s a difference of about seven inches, not enough to say that the Redskins were considerably worse off. The Bucs had 8.6 yards to go on their average third down and they managed to convert 38.4 percent of the time, a conversion rate nearly 25 percent better than Washington’s.

In this post, Mike Tanier looks at some of the issues with the Redskins offense in general, including the third-down problem. He breaks down the failed third down attempts. I won’t go into all of them here (the post is well worth your time to read) but one that caught my eye was 35 pass completions that did not gain enough to make a first down. Fans of all teams get frustrated when their team throws short of the sticks (the average NFL team had 27 third-down completions that didn’t result in a first) but the problem seemed to be particularly acute with the Redskins. Passes like Colt McCoy’s one-yard completion to Jordan Reed on third and two in the fourth quarter in Dallas are plays you just don’t see many other teams make.

So while it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a shorter distance to go on third down, giving yourself a chance to convert by being just a touch more aggressive would help as well. As Tanier wrote in the article, "If you don't have a seven-yard pass in your playbook for 3rd-and-medium, then frankly, you don't have an NFL offense."

It seems likely that the Redskins will improve on third down this year if only because, as was the case with special teams after the 2013 debacle, there is nowhere to go but up.

Timeline

—It’s been 186 days since the Redskins played a game. It will be 73 days until they play the Dolphins at FedEx Field.

Days until: Redskins training camp starts 28; Preseason opener @ Browns 42; final cuts 65

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Kirk Cousins breaks down the terribleness of FedEx Field grass

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Kirk Cousins breaks down the terribleness of FedEx Field grass

For years, the Redskins struggle with their home field as the fall turns to winter. It's been happening so long it's become an expected passing of the seasons, like the transition from Halloween jack-o-lanterns to Christmas lights dotting people's front yards. 

Well, on Thanksgiving night, the turf at FedEx Field again showed how bad it can be. On a second half interception returned for a New York Giants touchdown, replay showed that Kirk Cousins' foot got stuck on the dirt, and it played a role in his sailing a ball to the sideline. The bad turf was not the only reason for the interception, but it was definitely a reason. 

Beyond the pick, the field was just ugly. Twitter blew up making fun of the Redskins home grass, and the national broadcast showed just how unsightly the long brown patch between the hash marks looked. 

On Friday, the normally diplomatic Cousins opened up about the grass.

"It probably doesn't look like a professional NFL field should," the quarterback said on 106.7 the Fan (full audio here). "If you think the field is rough now on Thanksgiving, we've got two more home games in mid-to-late December. That's probably going to be a bigger challenge."

Asked about the field's impact on the interception on Thursday night, Cousins ignored it. But plenty of other players have suggested the field is a known problem in the second half, and something they just must deal with. 

"I don't know why it is that way or what causes it," Cousins said. "I've kind of learned to accept it and understand it's part of the deal. Playing here on the field has never been that great in the second half of the season for whatever the reason."

[h/t @BenStandig for the Cousins quotes]

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When Samaje Perine got going, so did the Redskins' offense

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Bob Youngentob for NBC Sports Washington

When Samaje Perine got going, so did the Redskins' offense

At halftime of the Redskins’ Thanksgiving night game against the Giants, Samaje Perine had three yards rushing and his team had three points. Washington had racked up all of 113 yards.

Coincidence? Not entirely. Although the Redskins are primarily a passing team they need to run the ball to pass effectively.

“We had to get the running game going,” said Jay Gruden after the game.

In the second half, Perine and the offense did get it going. Perine ran for 97 yards and Redskins put up 210 yards and 17 points. It’s safe to say that it wasn’t a coincidence.

The Redskins didn’t make any halftime adjustments to get the ground game in gear.

“We just had to stay the course,” said Perine. “We knew they were going to come out fired up, they just came off a big win. We just had to stay the course and then things started going our way.”

MORE REDSKINS: MUST-SEE PHOTOS OF THE WIN

Perine was more steady than spectacular. His longest run was 16 yards. He came out of the locker room and ran for six and 10 yards on his first two carries. Later in the third quarter the Redskins were backed up at their own 10. Perine ran four straight plays for 39 yards and the Redskins were near midfield.

Although they didn’t score on that drive they did change field position. That was part of the Redskins’ strategy playing with an injury-depleted offense.

“If you had to punt in a game like this and play field position, it’s not the end of the world because our defense was playing so good,” said Gruden.

Not only did the running game flip the field, it flipped the time of possession. In the first half, the Giants had the ball for 17:40 compared to 12:20 for the Redskins.

“We had to get on the field and control some of the clock,” said tackle Morgan Moses. “We had to give our defense a rest. Samaje put his foot in the ground and got extra yards when needed and we were able to move the chains.”

Moses wasn’t the only one enjoying seeing Perine pile up some yards.

“As a defensive player, you want to see that,” said safety D.J. Swearinger. “We say, keep running it. Keep running him. Let him keep getting those carries, put a dent in the defense. It was a good sight to see.”

RELATED: FIVE KEY MOMENTS IN RESKINS VS GIANTS

Swearinger got to watch a lot of Perine. The Redskins piled up 22:17 in possession in the second half, while Swearinger and his defensive mates had to defend for just 7:43.

Last night was the second time in four days that Perine has rushed for 100 yards or more; he had 117 in New Orleans on Sunday. No Redskin has rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games since Alfred Morris did it in November of 2013.

He will have a chance to extend that streak to three on Thursday against the Cowboys, who are ranked 17th in rushing defense. That would put him in some elite company in Redskins history, including Larry Brown (twice) and Stephen Davis.  A steak of three straight 100-yard games was last done by Morris in 2012.

It may be a little early to look forward, but the Redskins record is five straight 100-yard games, held by Clinton Portis (twice) and Ladell Betts.  

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS and follow him on Twitter @TandlerNBCS.