Size matters, but Redskins' red-zone success relies on many factors

Kirk Cousins' problems with accuracy contributed to the Redskins' red-zone issues last season. Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports

ASHBURN, Va. -- Washington Redskins offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh was spot on when discussing the team's red-zone offense on Wednesday. It won’t be solved just because they now have taller receivers.

That can help, of course, but it will take more to turn them back into an effective offense inside the 20-yard line.

“It’s a group effort,” said Cavanaugh, taking over coordinating duties -- but not play-calling -- from Sean McVay. “I’m not going to say that the only way to get better in the red zone is for us to throw it all the time to bigger receivers, which we’ve obviously got now. But that will be a part of it.”

At 6-foot-4, Terrelle Pryor can be effective in part because of his height; he did catch nine of 14 passes thrown his way in the red zone with Cleveland last season. But if all you can do is use your height, defensive backs can adjust. Pryor understands that aspect well. Jamison Crowder is a good red-zone target, too. He’s 5-foot-9 (maybe). Josh Doctson is 6-foot-2 and jumps well. That helps, but not if he can’t get off press coverage or run a fade route the proper way, creating extra inches of separation.

But the Redskins won’t be good in the red zone just because they added more height. Early last season, quarterback Kirk Cousins missed on throws that should have resulted in touchdowns. That had nothing to do with the height of the receivers. Rather, it was all about accuracy. He forced throws early (like the interceptions against Pittsburgh and Dallas). There was some belief that early mistakes led to occasional hesitancy in this area for a while.

The previous year, with the same group of targets, Cousins was excellent with 22 touchdown throws and no picks. He was accurate in the red zone. So it’s not as if he can’t be that way again. A key factor, too, will be his ability to extend plays. In 2015, Cousins ranked fourth in red-zone passer rating. Last year, with 14 touchdown throws and two picks, he was 25th -- sandwiched between Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But it wasn’t all on Cousins. There were bad routes; play calls that didn’t work (one defensive coach for another team brought this up); and an inconsistent running game. It wasn’t any one thing that caused Washington to stumble in the red zone. It was a combination of factors.

“We obviously took a big step backwards from the previous year,” Cavanaugh said. “We fell off drastically. That’s really execution. It’s giving our receivers a chance, giving our running game a chance, quarterbacks being more accurate, guys catching balls more consistently, protections being better.”

The Redskins don’t have to be in the top five in red-zone offense to succeed. But being in the top 10 would be a must: All five of the top-scoring offenses ranked among the top 10 in the red zone. Three of the top four -- Atlanta (first), New England (third) and Green Bay (fourth) -- all ranked between eighth and 10th inside the 20. San Francisco ranked second in the red zone, yet 23rd in scoring; number of opportunities matter. 

Cavanaugh said the Redskins studied other teams and their red-zone concepts. Some, he said, already were in the Redskins’ playbook; others were added. A strong run game would help, whether that means in number of rushes per game or yards per carry. Of those top five offenses, for example, each one ranked in the top 10 in either carries per game or yards per rush. Atlanta was top 10 in both. The Redskins were 15th in number of carries and 10th in yards per run. Between Rob Kelley's increased comfort level and Samaje Perine's success in this area at Oklahoma, the Redskins could have increased success running inside the 20.

“Hopefully we have that consistency with a good mix of run and pass down there,” Cavanaugh said, “and just make more plays.”

Simple as that.