ASHBURN, Va. -- The red zone struggles shouldn’t be surprising. The Washington Redskins are 1-4, they’ve sputtered throughout large moments of games on offense – in some cases doing little until the second half. They’ve had problems on third down. They’ve had problems with turnovers.
So, yes, they also have problems in the red zone, where they rank 22nd in trips with 14 and tied with nine other teams with a 50 percent touchdown rate. It makes sense.
“Last year it came a lot easier for us,” Redskins guard Kory Lichtensteiger said. “It just falls back to how inconsistent we’re playing right now.”
In Sunday’s 31-16 loss at Dallas, the Redskins cost themselves eight possible points, which in most games would make a difference between winning and losing. A 1-4 team can’t afford to waste chances. It also hurt them in a 27-20 loss to Detroit when they had two red zone trips and managed one turnover and three points.
“Yeah, we’ve got to get better, and we won’t win if we can’t score in the red zone,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said.
The same thing that makes a team good between the 20’s should make them good inside the 20. For the Redskins that starts with the running game. But they’ve been unable to generate a consistent rushing attack in the red zone, partly because of poor play and circumstances.
That’s why the Redskins have run the ball only 11 times in the red zone, second lowest in the NFL (compared to 25 drop-backs).
But they have success when they do, averaging 3.82 yards per carry, second best in the league. More numbers: Last season, running back Alfred Morris averaged 3.25 carries per game in the red zone; this year it’s 0.83 – he has five for the season.
The Redskins ran only one red zone play in the opening half of the first three games. Just one. When they finally did get in the red zone later in the game in Weeks 1 and 2, they were so far behind they had no choice but to throw. So of their first 10 plays in the red zone in those games, eight were designed passes.
And in the first three games they ran just one play in the red zone during a time in which they could remain balanced -- Griffin’s interception versus Detroit from the 19-yard line when he rolled to right. Later in the game they ran five plays in the red zone, but they were down 10 and threw on each down.
The last two games provides a better example of their performance. They ran seven plays in the scoring zone against Oakland, with three runs and four passes, scoring a touchdown each way.
If quarterback Robert Griffin III starts to run more it could help inside the 20. Just look at last year for the impact his legs had. He carried 17 times for 72 yards and five touchdowns in the first 10 weeks. But Griffin did not carry the ball in this area over his final six games as defenses changed their looks, opting for more man coverage. However, during that time he completed eight passes for six touchdowns (compared to 16 passes and four touchdowns in the first nine games).
“Obviously just him running is invaluable because of the attention,” Paulsen said. “Defenses have to get to it and we see a lot of man coverages. That’s something that will be advantageous to us.”
In some cases a missed opportunity was overcome. Against Oakland, for example, a Roy Helu run was well executed except for the fact that Logan Paulsen was unable to block the outside linebacker, who shot to the inside as tight end Paulsen pulled around the end for a tackle. But one play later Griffin connected with Pierre Garcon for a touchdown so it didn’t matter.
But against Dallas at the end of the first half, the Redskins lost a chance for a touchdown. Garcon was aligned to the right in a tight formation facing man coverage from Brandon Carr. Though the Redskins did not do well against man coverage Sunday, this was an advantageous situation. And Garcon gained an edge off the line, but Griffin threw a slant to the left for Leonard Hankerson that was incomplete. It would have gained five yards.
There was also Griffin’s quarterback draw in that same game, when linebacker Sean Lee made a terrific stop while getting off center Will Montgomery’s block. Dallas presented them the proper look in zone coverage for it to work but thanks to Lee it didn’t.
In both cases the Redskins were left with third-and-long situations, which are tough to convert at any spot on the field let alone where there’s less room to operate.
“There have been miscues and poor execution and we get ourselves in different situations like third and long,” Paulsen said, “and we get bogged down and then have to make extraordinary plays to get out of it. It’s a combination of everything. It’s no one thing.”
Defenses also have taken away some of what can be tough to stop in the red zone: the bootleg. Against Oakland, the Raiders end rushed at Griffin as he circled out of the bootleg. In this situation he’s supposed to stop and then throw; Paulsen, the primary target, is open. Griffin then threw incomplete outside to Garcon. Against Dallas, end DeMarcus Ware rushed at Griffin on a bootleg, forcing an off-target throw to running back Alfred Morris, who then dropped a pass to his inside.
The more Griffin becomes a threat here with his legs, the more other aspects will work like zone read fakes – a year ago teams had to decide if Griffin or Morris would get the ball only to be burned by a pass in the flat to wide open fullback Darrel Young.
“Whenever coordinators have the option to do both, they know they can be successful doing it, it puts the defense in a bind,” Redskins defensive end Kedric Golston said. “You can’t settle in on the calls you want to run that will put you in the best situation.”
And for the offense that means getting in the end zone.
“Any time you get field goals, you really can’t count on winning,” Shanahan said. “You’ve got to get touchdowns."