Redskins' pass rush fails late

Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo's sack on Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in the first quarter on Sunday was the only sack the Redskins recorded in the game. Bruce Kluckhohn/Bruce Kluckhohn

It’s a pass rusher’s dream: a double-digit lead in the second half, providing a chance to focus on rushing the passer and picking up a sack. Or two.

The Redskins have been presented with those situations in each of the past three games. They haven’t feasted.

The Redskins led Denver by 14 points in the third quarter and lost. They led San Diego by 10 in the fourth quarter and surrendered the lead before winning in overtime. And they blew a 13-point third-quarter lead at Minnesota. What could have been a good stretch for the Redskins turned into a frustrating one, with two losses.

“We let those leads go,” Redskins linebacker Ryan Kerrigan said. “That’s disappointing because that’s a situation we want. We want them to be in obvious pass situations and we weren’t able to capitalize defensively.”

You can’t just blame the defense. In each of those games the offense also did not do its job. Against Denver, after the Broncos cut the lead to seven the Redskins responded with two first downs on their next five drives (and one turnover). Against San Diego the Redskins managed one first down on their next drive following the Chargers’ cutting it to three points. And, against Minnesota they managed one first down in three of their last four drives of the game. They need to respond better.

But here are the passing numbers of opposing quarterbacks the past three weeks when the Redskins lead by 10 or more points: 15-for-19, 153 yards, two touchdowns and one sack. Yes, they’ve faced Denver’s Peyton Manning and San Diego’s Philip Rivers, two of the NFL’s best. But Christian Ponder went 6-for-6 with a touchdown against them, too.

And, when the Redskins have led in the second half the past three games quarterbacks have completed 29-of-42 passes for 331 yards, three touchdowns, one sack and an interception.

“Teams haven’t gone away with what they’re going to do in the second half,” Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “You get those situations where you get a team that says, ‘Screw it we’ll start chucking the ball up left and right.’ Teams are sticking to their game plans, establishing the run, a little play action. It’s rare to see that. [Usually] you get teams that are down and they get pass happy.”

Orakpo is right; Denver ran the ball on five of its next 11 plays after falling behind by 14. Minnesota passed the ball on six of its nine plays after trailing by 13, but the threat of running back Adrian Peterson enabled the play-action to still work. Ponder hurt them by extending plays, too; the Redskins rushed six and played man on his 14-yard run late in the third quarter.

“To their credit it worked,” Orakpo said of the Vikings. “They stuck to the game plan and they didn’t panic. It almost came off like they weren’t down at all. We weren’t able to take off like me and Ryan wanted to.”

But the Redskins only hit Minnesota’s quarterbacks once on the last 14 pass drops. They did not hit Manning after the 21-7 lead. They did hit Rivers once and sacked him another time. In general, though, the pressure hasn’t been there.

In many cases, teams have attacked the Redskins with quick three-step drops and throws. Washington has tried to run stunts and blitzes, but the quick throws negate them. They ran an occasional stunt against the Vikings on a third and six, but Ponder unloaded the ball in 2.1 seconds; so by the time Orakpo raced inside the pass was gone. Another time on third down Ponder threw in 1.3 seconds for a first down. Manning and Rivers threw quickly as well, but there were downs when both held the ball a little longer (on the sack of Rivers, he had the ball for 4.4 seconds because of sound man-to-man coverage).

That means the coverage must buy the rush more time. The Redskins played more zone versus Minnesota, in part most likely to help defend Peterson better when he tries to bounce wide, and the Vikings pounced with quick throws to open areas.

“When you’re stunting you need them to hold the ball a half second or two longer,” Orakpo said.

Of course, defenses have pressured Washington on seemingly quick passes. Griffin was sacked in 2.4 seconds and then 2.8 seconds on consecutive plays in the third quarter last week -- not necessarily instant pressure, but certainly quick. So it can be done. Ponder escaped some pressure, but he did have a few drops where after 2.8 seconds he still faced no pressure.

If the Redskins want to turn their season around they must improve with their four-man rushes in particular.

“I’m surprised by it last week because we had them in situations we wanted them,” Kerrigan said. “We were up 27-14 and their backs were against the wall. As a pass rusher that’s a situation you dream of. That was disappointing to let that lead go. That’s the game Rak and I and everyone on the defense wants.”

A lot of it comes back to an inability to stop teams on third downs. In those three games, when playing with the lead in the second half, the Redskins have allowed six of 11 third downs to be converted. That goes back to pressure -- and coverage, too. The offense must be more consistent to help, but at some point the defense needs to do it themselves.

“If we were satisfied ,we would have won those games in the second half,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said. “So that’s what we’re talking about. What do you have to do to improve in that area? You’ve got to get better on third downs.”