Third down success on offense, defense fuels Redskins

Making plays on the key down helping Redskins succeed through four games while ranking high among NFL peers.

It’s the money down and often considered the most important down on any level of football.
Third down. You are defined as a unit, offense and defense,  by what you do in this particular situation.
If you are good at it on defense, you break the spirit of your opponent and get some much needed rest.
If you are good at it on offense, you break the spirit of your opponent, deny them rest and continue marching down the field.
That’s exactly what you want to do. That’s how you win football games. You win games by controlling the ball and denying your opponent opportunities. If you convert on third downs 45% or more of the time, you give yourself a chance.
It’s something the Redskins did an awful job of the last two years, when they were more interested in trying to get chunk yards than the yards and situations that break the will of your opponent.
Thankfully, the football operations of the organization is run by a true professional now who instantly recognized the easiest way to stabilize the situation.
It also helps to have a quarterback who can run the offense the way it was designed.  That would be Kirk Cousins.
The Redskins offense is converting 46.8% (29/62) of their third down chance in 2015. That has allowed them to control games and reign supreme in time of possession. Washington leads the NFL with 36:19 time of possession average through Week 4.
The 29 third-down conversions rank second in the NFL.
Last year, the Redskins were 31.5% on third-down over the course of the season. In 2013, they were successful 40.4% of the time.
The defense is also pretty damn good on this crucial down, holding opponents to 31.3% (15 of 48) conversion rate on third down. That’s first in the NFC and third in the NFL.
It’s really a simple game that people try and make really hard.
Back to the offense. The key to the third down success? At his Wednesday press conference, Redskins coach Jay Gruden noted protection -- and avoiding as many third-and-longs as possible,. This year, the Redskins have only faced 32 of those situations (defined in this case as 3rd-and-7 or longer).
The conversion rate even for a good offense is not particularly high in these situations. That is true for the Redskins at just an 18.8% (6 of 32) conversion rate.
By contrast, on 3rd-and-6 or less, the Redskins are 23 of 30 (76.6%).
So why have they been so successful in these third-down and shorter yardage situations?
There isn’t one dominant answer. With the receivers, Jordan Reed has been key, Pierre Garcon a factor with Jamison Crowder an emerging option.
Cousins is mostly efficient and the run and shorter passing success on first and second downs are giving Washington a chance for the stars to align.
That’s a lot of reasons, but let’s delve a bit deeper.
Garcon ranks second in the NFC and fifth in the NFL in third-down receptions with 10 catches. Reed's nine grabs ranks third in the NFC and seventh in the NFL.
Crowder was targeted five times on third down situations in Sunday’s win over the Eagles. He caught four and all went for first-downs. He’s first in the NFC and second in the NFL in first down receptions among rookies.
Two plays from the Duke product stand out, including one immediately after an apparent third down conversion was wiped out byt a Garcon face mask penalty. Facing 3rd-and-13, Crowder caught a leaping 23-yard pass even as two Philadelphia defenders crunched by Eagles’ defenders from two sides.
Earlier in the game, Crowder converted on a nine-yard completion on 3rd-and-5 as he ran a crossing route over the middle of the field. The Redskins had run a double-cross from Crowder and the opposite side of the formation, leaving Philadelphia defenders searching for answers.
Cousins deftly manipulates the pocket and buys extra-time that Robert Griffin III and Colt McCoy simply could not or did not. Sorry if that offends you, but that is the truth.
As for the running games which sets up the shorter third-down attempts, the Redskins are number one in the NFL in rushing yards (558) and rushing yards per game (139.5) along a 4.43 yards-per-rush average which is third in the NFL.
Put it altogether and I’d say they are headed in the right direction. It's a direction the QB notes Washington embarked back in April.
"I’ve always believed that you get what you emphasize and I think our coaches went back and looked at last year and said ‘we need to be better on third down, lets emphasize that,'" Cousins said Wednesday. "So staring in April when we came back it was a point of emphasis. When you work on something enough and emphasize it, you get the results."
Hard to argue otherwise after four games.

Chris Russell is a senior writer for Breaking Burgundy. You can find him on Twitter @russellmania621.

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