Inside the game: Redskins' third-down woes

ASHBURN, Va. -- They’ll take the finish and try to build momentum. As the Washington Redskins move forward, that’s about the only route they can take.

The Redskins have many issues, but third downs tops the list for the offense. They’ve converted just 23.8 percent of third downs, stalling drives and forcing a beleaguered defense back onto the field.

“It’s just one guy after another, and you are only as strong as your weakest link,” Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. “It seems on third down especially we’ve had a weak link.”

Shanahan included play calls on the list of third-down grievances.

It’s not as if every third down went bad against Green Bay, but nothing went right until the game was lopsided. It hasn’t helped that of the Redskins’ 21 third-down situations this year, only two have been for less than four yards -- and 12 were for at least nine.

One positive for Washington: Quarterback Robert Griffin III threw three of his Week 2 best passes on third down. He completed a six-yard touchdown pass to Pierre Garcon under duress as he fell to his left; he completed a 25-yard out to Garcon, showing patience against a blitz; and against another six-man rush, with a free defensive back about to hit him, he connected with Santana Moss for a nine-yard touchdown.

Still, there have been problems. The solution doesn’t rest on just one player, either. Nor can the Redskins rely on Griffin’s legs to bail them out of these situations. The Packers, for example, sent at least five rushers on nine of 11 third downs Sunday. They did an excellent job making sure all gaps were contained, forcing Griffin to beat them with his arm -- and knowing he might not try to escape as much.

So how do you struggle on third downs? Let’s count the ways:

1. Slippery feet

On their second third down of the game, needing seven yards from their own 10-yard line, the Redskins had a good matchup: tight end Jordan Reed against a linebacker. Reed’s ability to win these matchups has helped earn him more play time. But Reed slipped off the line, forcing Griffin to go to his second option, Garcon running a deep comeback. Griffin didn’t have time and was hit as he threw incomplete after 2.8 seconds in the pocket.

2. Miscommunication

The first third down of the day resulted in an incompletion, perhaps a function of the lack of game experience this season between the receivers and Griffin. Against man coverage, and running out of a bunch formation on the right, receiver Josh Morgan ran 12 yards and was open as he cut inside. Griffin read the play similarly, but not exactly, and he threw a pass that would have required Morgan to slightly cut in but keep running upfield.

“Better non-verbal communication,” Morgan said on what is needed. “It was a read route and I have to communicate better with my body, showing him I’m not about to do this. It takes a lot of time. It’s simple things like that. If I had showed him better that I wasn’t going to sit down or wasn’t going to do this or that, then we would have converted.”

The solution: Morgan said there’s only one. “Just more game action,” he said. “The game is always different than practice. You never get the same look.”

3. Protection

It’s not just the offensive line, it’s the backs, too. On the same play in which Griffin and Morgan couldn’t connect, running back Roy Helu was practically run over by linebacker Brad Jones. By the time Griffin threw, Helu was on his hands and knees, perpendicular to Griffin, who could not step into his throw because of him. Center Will Montgomery was driven back just in front of Griffin on consecutive third downs. On the first, Griffin couldn’t step into a throw on a deep out to Garcon and had his pass batted down; it prevented Griffin from stepping into a throw on the next one, too.

4. Missed assignments

Green Bay guessed well when the Redskins ran a screen to Helu on third-and-9 from the Packers’ 35-yard line. But the play still had a shot to work. However, right tackle Tyler Polumbus needed to take a more direct route to the defensive back, giving the Redskins two blockers on two defenders. It delayed his arrival, which forced Helu to try and cut inside, where a linebacker, and two-yard gain, awaited.

5. Errant throws

Griffin surely had some issues on third downs. He and Morgan didn’t click, though Griffin delivered the ball on time, and that also happened another time with Reed, when Griffin anticipated a different route. Griffin also threw high on a slant to Garcon that would have resulted in a first down. Another time Griffin and Moss were off on their timing; Griffin threw to a covered Moss, but it was delivered a hair late and that allowed the defensive back to break on the ball and knock it away.