The Washington Redskins face easily their toughest challenge of the season on Sunday, when they take on the 7-0 New England Patriots. It doesn't get much easier after that, as they then move on to the New Orleans Saints, who are just 4-4 but have won three in a row and four of their last five, and the 7-0 Carolina Panthers. Each of those three teams is among the top 10 in points per game, and the Patriots and Saints are in the top five in yards per game.
One way the Redskins can keep the games close is by eating up time and possession, specifically by orchestrating long, gradual drives. Considering the run game is virtually nonexistent at this point, this seems a daunting task, and as soon as the Redskins fall behind early — a likely scenario given the power of the New England offense, especially — Jay Gruden will be tempted to abandon a faltering rushing attack in favor of a Kirk Cousins-Tom Brady shootout. Say what you'd like about Cousins; whether he's the future of this team or not, he's not winning a shootout against Tom Brady.
For Washington to stay alive and not get overwhelmed early, one big factor will be converting third downs. Fortunately, it's been pretty good at doing so this season. The Redskins have converted 43 of their 100 third downs so far, which is good for the 10th best percentage in the league.
They've been better this season than they have been in recent seasons, though they fluctuate significantly year-to-year.
- 2014: 62-of-197 (32%), 30th in the NFL
- 2013: 95-of-235 (40%), 11th in the NFL
- 2012: 68-of-190 (36%), 24th in the NFL
There are many reasons for this disparity, and so many aspects of an offense factor into the third-down conversion rate; for example, the quarterback is the primary person to look at, but his receiving corps, running backs and offensive linemen all play a part, as do penalties and game situation.
Having Jordan Reed healthy this season has worked wonders for the Redskins offense, especially on third downs. Reed has more targets on third down than any other down in his career — interestingly, five of his six career touchdowns have also come on third down, including all three this season — and he's caught 12 of his 15 targets on third down this season for 114 yards. Of those 12 catches, 10 have been for first downs.
Pierre Garcon is another quality third-down target. He's been targeted exactly 19 times on first, second and third down this season; he's made 11 catches on first down, 12 on second and 14 on third, and he has nine first downs on those 14 third-down catches.
Jamison Crowder, though still a rookie, has proven to be a valuable third-down commodity, as well. He has more targets (15) and catches (11) on third down than any other down, and he's converted seven first downs on third down.
The Redskins obviously didn't have Crowder in previous seasons. Reed missed seven games in 2013 and five in 2014, compared to just two this season, and wasn't in the league in 2012. Garcon hasn't missed a game since 2012, but he missed six that year.
So not having any of those three receivers in 2012 helps explain the 36 percent conversion rate in 2012. As for 2014, there are plenty of reasons, though inconsistent quarterback play was the biggest reason. The play calling was not very good last season, nor was the offensive line, and the offense seemed to hurt itself more than help itself throughout the season.
It's also worth mentioning how DeSean Jackson factored into the equation. Jackson was targeted 37 times on first down last year, which resulted in 26 catches, 581 yards and four touchdowns. He was targeted 36 times on second down, which resulted in 21 catches, 499 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers are almost hard to believe, especially the 22.3 and 23.8 yards per catch, respectively.
But when Jackson couldn't haul in the catch, it still ends as gain of zero yards. So instead of a short gain to make it 2nd-and-7 or so, the Redskins now face a 2nd-and-10. A short gain on second down then makes it a long third down, and it doesn't take a genius to understand a 3rd-and-2 is a much easier conversion than a 3rd-and-7.
There's a reason Jackson's numbers plummeted on third downs to just nine catches on 22 targets for 89 yards (9.9 yards per catch). He's not a possession receiver, like Reed or Garcon or even Crowder, he's a big-play receiver who typically picks up 20+ yards or nothing.
So while having Jackson in the offense is obviously a huge advantage, the Redskins have been facing shorter third downs than they did a year ago, when they either didn't face a third down because Jackson took a first-down pass 60 yards to the house or they faced a 3rd-and-long because they went deep on first down and didn't connect.
Jackson is expected to play Sunday, so we'll see how things change with him on the field. Regardless, Washington will need to keep its offense on the field and Tom Brady on the bench for as much of the game as possible if it wants to have any chance of staying in the game.