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Third Down and the Season

A Look at ‘Skins 3rd Downs From Training Camp Till Now.

J. Meric - Getty Images

This off-season Herm Edwards and Merrill Hodge were only two of the many NFL talking-heads to identify 3rd down conversion as the #1 key for Redskins offense to succeed this season. Some analysts have suggested that first year quarterback, Robert Griffin III did not gain much experience facing tough 3rd down situations while at Baylor last season and will need to learn on the job now that he's in the big leagues.

Over the years, Head Coach Mike Shanahan, as well, has often cited 3rd conversion percentage as one of the most important and telling box score statistics.

These were the opening paragraphs to a report I wrote on August 3rd, the eight day of the Redskins' 2012 training camp, during which I was lucky enough to intern for the team's public relations and broadcasting departments. A day and week into the swing of things, I felt it was as good a time as any to take a close look on how the (very) young ‘Skins offense was handling the most critical and difficult down in football.

Griffin III started off the practice very well in 11-on-11 drills, completing seven out of his first eight passes, many of which were against the first team defense...

Griffin's hot-start was tested during the first "move the ball" drill, when an Evan Royster run got stuffed at the line of scrimmage, bringing up 3rd and 6. The first team Nickel defense lined up opposite receivers Moss, Hankerson and Garcon with Griffin beginning the play in shotgun.

Verdict: A tight spiral through the teeth of the defense hit the well covered Moss in stride fifteen yards down field.

"That's six!" yelled a fan, as Moss finished the play running hard all the way into the end-zone. He probably would have been caught, but nonetheless the fan's excitement was warranted. It was a dynamic completion and a very encouraging sign.

Building on his strong training camp, Moss has been a favorite target of Griffin's on 3rd down and medium so far this season. Griffin hooked up with Moss for critical conversions in the St. Louis game, and also looked for him on 3rd and 6 in the first quarter this past Sunday against the Falcons; although in that last instance the usually reliable vet dropped Griffin's pass, effectively ending the early drive. It's noteworthy that Moss's 77 yard connection with Kirk Cousins in the beginning of the 4th quarter accounted for the only Redskins 3rd down conversion of the game. The thirty-three year old has shown he can still find open space in critical circumstances.

Flash back to training camp:

The next time the first offense took the field for a "move the ball" drill, the drive ended after only three plays. On 3rd down, with pressure coming from both directions, Griffin bought an extra second or so with his feet, before throwing the ball into the dirt, right around the feet of a couple of oncoming defenders. Initially, a fan might be disappointed by the incompletion. Before we get ahead of ourselves, however, we have to remember that a quarterback's ability to avoid bad plays can be as essential to his success as his ability to pick up big gains.

That last sentences rings eerily true today.

By far the most critical down of last week's game was 3rd and goal from the four, a play which lead to Robert Griffin III's game-ending concussion. Griffin had miscued a first down throw to Pierre Garcon from the 6 yard line, which, had it hit the receiver in stride, would have likely lead to a score. Perhaps that disappointment was in the back of the young quarterback's mind two plays later, as he strafed toward the sideline looking for Garcon who was well covered in the end-zone.

We all know what happened next. Instead of tossing the ball out of bounds, or running out of bounds himself, Griffin accelerated toward the pile-on only to be cut down by one Falcon and smashed to the turf by another.

About the play I only have one comment. Elway missed a lot of games in his career. Marino missed far less. If the choice is between the two, give me #7 any day of the week.

Back to training camp:

Later, the first team offense went through an 11-on-11 drill which featured a series of plays that all started from 3rd and 1. Here is how that drill went for the first team offense against the second team defense:

1st play: Coverage sack.

2nd play: False start on the far side. The penalty is by my count the fifth false start of the day. Mike Shanahan momentarily stops the drill, in what appears to be an NBA-like timeout. Before the drill gets going again, the entire offense huddles around its coaching staff for around a minute.

3rd play: Chris Coolie, yes that Chris Coolie, takes a hand-off and rumbles ahead for a handful of yards and the first down.

4th play: Another, coverage sack. Afterward, even though the referee blew the whistle to signal the play dead, Griffin threw outside the numbers looking for Garcon. The would-be passed was picked off and returned to the end-zone by safety Madieu Williams. Difficult to tell if Griffin could have or would have released that ball in an actual game situation.

5th play: Evan Royster is stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

It's important to remember here that c
onventional wisdom dictates that the defense is still well ahead of the offense at this point of the preseason. Still, this drill might prove to be a good measuring stick for the team down the road. True, completing long 3rd downs can save drives and ball-games, but even if you're the Saints or the Patriots, 3rd and anything more than 6 yards is always going to be a low-odds proposition. Converting 3rd and short consistently, however, rewards your offense for generating good yardage on the first two plays. With the strong running game and the strong bootleg and naked game that the Skins' expect to have this season, cashing in on these types of scenarios could be key.

Let me take a moment to take talk about the "strong boot-leg and naked game" I envisioned the Redskins while I was at training camp; in truth, it was something I expected since the moment I heard we got the #2 pick.

Growing up a huge Broncos fan, the bootleg was the play of my youth, and though generally pleased with the offensive play calling so far - I wouldn't think in a million years the read-option and the read-option pass would have been this effective this early - I have been disappointed by the relatively few times the Redskins have run the type of old-fashioned play-action bootleg passes or quarterback naked runs that were the staple of the Broncos championships in the late nineties.

(BTW: If anybody doubts that these plays still work in today's NFL just take a look at the Houston Texans' offense domination over the last 5 weeks.)

The naked bootleg could have won us Sunday's game against the Falcons.

The Redskins had two 3rd and 1's in the game, one in the first half, one in the second. On both plays I was thinking, you can't show run AND run it here. Our line isn't beastly enough to push 11 oncoming defenders a yard down field. Despite my contentions - which the coaching staff did an excellent job of pretending not to hear - the ‘Skins lined up both times in a power formation with two tight-ends, and on both plays Morris ran up the gut for no gain. The defensive backfield sniffed each run out.

That type of eager anticipation is exactly what you want as an offense when employing the naked bootleg.

Some might say it's too risky - everything seems to risky when you let your imagine run wild with Griffin III's potential. Unlike the typical play-action, with the naked the entire offensive-line sells the run, which leaves no one to protect the goods at QB. Personally, however, I don't think the play risks injury more than any other play because with the naked bootleg the quarterback will know immediately whether or not he has space to take off or if the play has been blown up and his only option is to take a dive.

Using some variation of the naked bootleg on at least one of those 3rd and short plays in my opinion would have kept the defense honest, and more importantly, would have picked up a first down. Instead the defense was rewarded for keying in on Morris.

Okay, to be fair, hindsight is twenty/twenty. Perhaps, it was exactly because it seemed so obvious that coaches decided to go with those runs. Like a lot of games, football has all the same elements of Rock/Paper/Scissors. Kyle might have figured the Falcons defense would be looking for the ‘Skins to do something different on the next 3rd and 1. So, bam! he went again with Rock. Personally, in those borderline spots, I'd like to see Kyle punish the defense's instincts more often - and go with what was once his dad's signature play.

One more time back to camp: below was my wrap up of the August 3rd afternoon practice:

Overall, the defense continues to outperform the offense this camp. That was particularly evident on 3rd down this afternoon. Like after any day of training camp, however, we can't draw too many major conclusions from today. Remember that after the first day of camp Griffin said he thought that the coaching staff was giving him the hardest looks possible to get him ready for the season. This tactic might very well be the case on 3rd down plays as well.

Although I didn't feel I could draw any conclusions at the time, we can now. It's obvious that the offense's 3rd down struggles are far more serious than just a training camp oddity. The Redskins offense is dead last in the department, converting only 22% of its put-up-or-punt opportunities. Whenever, a team is that bad in one particularly area there is enough blame to go around. Here I've pointed out that I would like to see more variety in 3rd and short situations, but perhaps the coaches would have had more confidence in throwing the ball if there hadn't already been two critical drops on 3rd down on the team's first two offensive drives. And don't forget about the line. If any of them want to be perennial starters in this league - big, Trent Williams included - they should expect to be able push forward for a yard no matter who is in the way.