What went wrong/How to fix it: Third down defense

What went wrong/How to fix it: Third down defense
February 13, 2013, 1:30 pm
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Over the next week, Redskins reporter Tarik El-Bashir will examine what went wrong in 2012 and weigh possible solutions to the issues.

Today, we’re looking at the defense’s struggles on third downs. 

The problem: The Redskins’ defense showed significant improvement in many areas following the team’s bye in Week 10.

But one area that proved problematic from start to finish was the unit’s inability to get off the field on third downs. In fact, Washington ranked dead last in the NFL in that category.

Opponents routinely extended drives, converting 44.2-percent (95 of 215) of their third downs. It often resulted in tired Redskins’ defenders late in games and, of course, fewer opportunities for Robert Griffin III and Alfred Morris on offense.

Six times, the unit allowed opponents to convert 50-percent or more of their third downs, which included Eli Manning and the Giants converting 60-percent or better in the teams’ two meetings.

The low-point arrived in the Redskins’ 27-23 loss at the Meadowlands in October. Although a fourth-quarter breakdown in pass coverage received much of the blame, Victor Cruz and Eli Manning wouldn’t have been in position for that late strike had Washington’s defense performed better earlier in the game. The Giants converted 8 of their 12 third downs (66.7-percent), including five during New York’s 13-point second quarter.

The potential fix: Was it play-calling? Poor execution in the clutch? Injuries? 

All three of the above reasons were contributing factors, but it’s hard to underestimate the role injuries played, particularly the effect losing Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker had on the rest of the season.

Orakpo and Carriker -- both sidelined for the season in Week 2 -- combined for a total of 14.5 sacks in 2011. Without them, the Redskins’ pass rush struggled to consistently apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, creating a domino effect. 

Just a season earlier, the Redskins’ defense ranked 16th on third down conversions (37.4-percent.)

“If you want to be a good defense, on third down, you’ve got to get off the field, get three-and-outs,” defensive end Jarvis Jenkins told Redskins.com after Matt Ryan and the Falcons converted 9 of 17 third downs in October.

While there's no clear answer for the struggles, this much isn't up for debate: Playmakers make stops on third downs. And in 2013, the Redskins figure to have more of them. Orakpo (torn pectoral), Carriker (torn quadriceps tendon) and safety Brandon Meriweather (torn ACL) are expected to return. The team is also expected to make upgrades elsewhere on defense.

It will be interesting to see if an infusion of skill nets a measurable improvement on third downs. If not, it will be time to start examining what other factors are at play.