After four games, Redskins opponents have the best conversion percentage on third down in the league, something head coach Jay Gruden knows needs to change.
Four games is a reasonable sample size to make certain assessments about a football team, and one of the glaring critiques against the Redskins in 2016 has been their third down defense.
Highlighted by more struggles against the Browns on Sunday, the team has allowed opponents to convert 57 percent on third down through the first quarter of the year, the worst mark in the league by 10 percent. Meanwhile, 24 teams have faced more third downs total than the Redskins.
"Yeah, we want to be around 35 percent quite frankly, and we're not even close right now," head coach Jay Gruden said Monday at his press conference. "It's an issue. We have to get better on third down. These teams that we play are very good coming up. Baltimore is an excellent team – [Joe] Flacco – and we're going to have to get better on third down."
Last season, Washington allowed opponents to convert just 37 percent of the time, while the New York Giants were the league's worst allowing opponents to convert 46 percent of the time, still about 10 percent better than where the Redskins stand now.
Against the Browns, the Redskins allowed Cleveland to convert on 8-of-12 third down attempts, five of which came in the second half. The problem has mainly been on third-and-long situations, in which the defense has accomplished their tasks on the first two downs, putting the offense in obvious passing situations, but been unable to close out what they started.
During the Browns' first drive on Sunday, quarterback Cody Kessler went immediately towards Terrell Pryor Sr. on third-and-9 and lofted one up to his 6-foot-4 frame above cornerback Josh Norman for a 13-yard conversion. That combination would prove to be lethal, as Kessler found Pryor for another first down on a third-and-11 and a third-and-7, the latter ending in a nine-yard touchdown pass in the first half.
Pryor was not the only issue – missed tackles on running back Isaiah Crowell and leaving open spaces on the field during blitzes played their part in a few conversions, too – but it underscored an issue the Redskins have faced predominantly in their first four games.
Playing against a dynamic wide receiver has been an issue on these "money downs," as defensive coordinator Joe Barry likes to call them, both in preventing them from catching the ball and making sure the defense doesn't leave others in isolated areas of the field. The Redskins have, according to Gruden, tried many ways to stop opposing teams from converting.
"We've done a little bit of everything," Gruden said. "We've played zone and got beat. We played man-to-man yesterday and guys won the one-on-one matchups for Cleveland, some good throws, some good catches. So we've tried everything. We're just going to continue to mix it up and do some things and hopefully get more pressure on the quarterback and cover better. That's all we can do."
At some point, based on history, the Redskins should get better at getting off the field and sending their special teams unit out. The Redskins missed many tackles – 11, according to Gruden – that enabled the Browns' offense to keep driving and taking time off the clock. Subtracting yards after contact and executing on all downs should help bring down that conversion rate down and get the Redskins' offense more opportunities to score.
"We're fixing the things that we have to fix from yesterday," Gruden said. "Each game is going to be a different challenge. Everybody has good football players on their team. Cleveland proved that. Their quarterback played well, obviously… No. 11, he's a heck of a player – Pryor – and obviously the running back [Isaiah] Crowell did a nice job. So, they have good players. Baltimore is going to have good players, the following week they are going to have good players. We've just got to play better, we've got to tackle better and cover better."