The Redskins have been moving the ball on offense this year and one reason they have been able to do that is that they have managed to stay ahead of the chains.
“We don’t have a lot of negative plays,” said Jay Gruden. You lose your play-action when you’re in second-and-11, second-and-12 and third-and-8 or you’re behind. We’ve been in games, in front, close games, second and manageable, third and manageable, so now your whole playbook is open and that is the result of our running back not taking negative gains and our quarterback not taking sacks.”
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The numbers bear out what Gruden said. I picked out some down and distance situations that are unfavorable and take options away from the offense and looked at how many snaps the Redskins have run in those situations this year (via the indispensable Pro Football Reference):
—On third and seven or longer they have taken 51 snaps. Only two teams have taken fewer.
—They have taken 31 snaps on third and 10 or longer. That’s fewer than all but four teams.
—On second and 10 or longer there have been 72 snaps, fewer than all but three teams.
It’s no secret that success on first down is what leads to being in good shape on second and third downs. Kirk Cousins averages 7.7 yards per attempt on all his passes. On first down that jumps up to an impressive 9.3.
The rushing game also is better on first down that it is in general. The Redskins average 4.5 yards per attempt on all running plays. On first and 10 they gain an average of 4.9 yards.
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And, as Gruden pointed out, they are good at avoiding negative plays. On first down they have had just 17 running plays that went for zero or negative yards. Two teams have fewer. Kirk Cousins has been sacked three times on first down; no quarterback with at least 100 first-down passing attempt has been sacked less often in that situation.
Moving the ball has not been a problem for the Redskins this year. Scoring touchdowns when they get into the red zone has been. But to solve that problem they must continue to get to the red zone and as long as they make forward progress on first down and stay out of long-yardage situations they have a good chance of doing that.