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WFT Daily: Stayin' Alive (On Third Down)

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The Washington Football Team huddles against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 15, 2020. (Zack Silver/NFL)

The 2020 season is here, and we have you covered as the Washington Football Team progresses through its inaugural campaign under head coach Ron Rivera. Stay up to date with "WFT Daily," which comes out every weekday evening.

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The Washington Football Team had the worst third-down efficiency at the start of the season. Over the past month, no team has been better.

After converting 33% during the first four weeks, Washington has converted 50.9% from Weeks 6-10.

"The one thing, the biggest positive, is I feel like we're growing as an offense," offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Nov. 4. "I feel like we're getting better, I think both collectively and also individually."

Part of the discrepancy has to do with Washington's opponents; over the first four weeks, it played three of the top 10 third-down defenses in the Baltimore Ravens (second), Arizona Cardinals (ninth) and Philadelphia Eagles (10th). (Neither the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys or Detroit Lions are better than 21st in this category.)

The offense has also seemed to run smoother with Kyle Allen and Alex Smith at quarterback. Allen's mobility allowed him to extend plays and even take off running, which he did twice on third down against the Giants in Week 6. Smith, who replaced the injured Allen in Week 9, relies more on his experience; he's in his 16th NFL season, so he knows which route concepts work against certain third-down defenses.

Smith's veteran ability was evident Sunday against the Lions. Trailing 24-3 midway through the third quarter, he completed 5-of-6 passes for 86 yards on third and fourth down to help Washington tie the game with seconds to play.

"It's the details," Smith said about being efficient through the air. "So much of the passing game is really about the details and timing. I think all these guys having a great understanding of how we all fit into that and together, if we're doing our job right, somebody's going to be making a play."

Running back J.D. McKissic and Terry McLaurin have been the most reliable third-down options, as they have combined to convert 14 of the team's 27 third downs during the last four games.

Expect Smith to target both players against a Cincinnati defense that is allowing opponents to convert those plays at a rate of 46.9%.

"What I will say is he knows where people are, and he knows where the people are to get the ball out to," Turner said of Smith. "He's a really smart guy. He understands what defenses are trying to do, and that helps the offensive line. That helps our guys with yards after catch. The quicker you get it to them, the more they can get up field. It just helps our offense run smooth."

QUICK HITS:

-- Rivera pleased with RBs, WRs and CBs: Washington entered the year with an entirely new running back room, two new starting cornerbacks and a host of unproven receivers outside Terry McLaurin.

Yet 10 weeks into the season, each position group has had its bright spots: J.D. McKissic and Antonio Gibson have proved to be a capable duo in the backfield; Kendall Fuller is having a career year with Ronald Darby playing solid as well; and Cam Sims, Isaiah Wright and Steven Sims Jr. have all shown flashes of productivity.

"I feel really comfortable with what we've gotten from our wide receivers and running backs. I think that's been a very pleasant thing," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I like the play of our corners. I thought those guys have done a nice job coming together as a group. I think as we continue to go through this, we'll see guys continue to develop. Some guys develop faster. Some positions have developed faster than other positions."

-- Del Rio explains plan for getting pressure: Cincinnati has allowed the second-most sacks (32) in the NFL this season, which should bode well for a defense that is currently fifth in that category with 28. The key, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said, will be forcing the Bengals into passing situations by stopping the run. Washington ranks 21st in that category (126.0 yards allowed per game), but Del Rio believes the unit has performed better than the statistics suggest.

"I think actually we've played the run pretty well this year," Del Rio said. "That may be a shock to you or to others. I think, overall, defensively we've done some really good things. We're just going to continue to work, continue to work to be more consistent. I think, if anything, the group is kind of trying to do too much rather than just try to take care of your responsibility. We're trying to focus on that. One thing I will say is our energy's been great. Our spirit is still strong. To me, that's always as a coach something that you want to make sure you're keeping that part strong. I think it is. I think we'll continue to make strides defensively and build upon the pretty good start to the season."

-- McLaurin continues to expand repertoire: Primarily an outside receiver as a rookie, Terry McLaurin has moved around the formation much more during his second NFL season. He still lines up at his natural position about 65% of the time, but he has been in the slot for one third of his plays and has even spent some time in the backfield. Against the Lions, he received a hand-off on a jet sweep for a 27-yard pickup.

"I just really try to be available in whatever they ask me to do for that week game-plan wise, moving around in different spots, taking jet sweeps if need be. I just feel like it gives defenses another element of our offense that they have to account for."

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