The red zone was an area of trouble for the Redskins last year, but the addition of taller receivers and a different focus on play-calling this season can help change that.
Of the many positives from the Redskins' offensive output last season, most of them were marred by the lack of red zone scoring. The struggles to move the ball past the goal line once the team reached its opponent's 20-yard line dampened what was already a potent attack.
Washington finished third to last in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on 45 percent of their trips, quite a difference from 2015, when the Redskins converted 58 percent of the time. The reasons for this difference in success are harder to parse.
Regardless of an easy solution, the Redskins have already taken some steps to increasing their chances for better results in the red zone, both in personnel and in philosophy, which should help them return to the standards that 2015 set.
Here's a look at how the red zone offense could improve this season.
Bigger Is Better
The Redskins filled the void left by the departures of DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garçon by signing Terrelle Pryor and Brian Quick, each of whom stands well higher than six feet. If first-round draft pick Josh Doctson can return healthy this year, he will bring another big target in the red zone to pair with returning tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis.
Head coach Jay Gruden dismissed the idea that height alone would help alleviate some of the struggles, but the margin for error for quarterback Kirk Cousins certainly increases.
"We are going to throw a lot of fades now," Gruden said jokingly. "It doesn't change a whole lot. I think there are some things that you are more comfortable doing with a bigger guy, like watch them run under a catch and all that stuff. The physicality at the line of scrimmage and some of the route concepts might change a little but not a whole lot. We have a very good system in place that can be successful."
Of the complaints regarding the red zone, much was directed towards the play-calling, and the decisions to pass or run. Certainly, the talent at receiver made it tempting to pass more often and utilize the weapons that had helped drive the team down the field.
But the emergence of running back Robert Kelley in the middle of the season was a growing reason to run the ball closer to the goal line. It's something Gruden believes the team will evaluate.
"Our running game has got to improve down there, or what runs we call down there have to improve," Gruden said.
The coaching staff has been working on throwing some new wrinkles into the offense, which will mostly stay the same as Matt Cavanaugh takes over for Sean McVay.
"Coach Cavanaugh will have some new ideas, obviously Coach Callahan works very hard," Gruden said. "The good thing is when we watch all this college tape and we're watching all these players in college, we always come up with more ideas. 'Hey, did you see what Florida did against…whatever,' we draw up the plays, we put them in. We come up with stuff all the time. We'll have some new wrinkles here and there. For the most part our system has been pretty sound the last few years and been pretty successful. We do have some thing we have to fix, no doubt about it. Our red zone offense we have to continue to work and progress in that area."
Gruden acknowledged that success in the red zone has multiple variables, among them determining the kinds of defenses in play. Cousins struggled in situations in which the defense dropped into zone coverage, which eliminated opportunities to needle passes to receivers over the middle.
"We've got to get our quarterback more comfortable," Gruden said. "And sometimes when you call a pass down there, when they drop eight guys in coverage, it's hard, the windows are very few and far between. It's something Kirk can work on as far as buying time and keeping plays extended for a little while longer, so there are a lot of things we can work on as coaches and the players can work on and we can get them fixed."
Indeed, Cousins has expressed himself a desire to make more plays out of the pocket and off rhythm, which makes him more of a threat, and allows his receivers to ad-lib and throw off defenses. It's something Aaron Rodgers has perfected, and Redskins have seen tastes of, like when Cousins ran for a touchdown against the Lions last season on a quarterback option play.
"I know that's something that he's really honed in on mentally as far as working on it, but it's something that you can't just say OK I'm going to work on this today," Gruden said. "It's just got to be a feel thing, and a patient thing, and the more he plays, the more he feels it, the better he'll be. He had a couple great extended plays throughout the course of the year. But I think you can't force the issue either. Then you're asking for trouble -- more interceptions and sacks and all that -- so that will come more natural to him, but that's part of the process of growing as a quarterback."