How Can Redskins Fix a Third-down Defense That is By Far NFL’s Worst?

The Redskins’ struggles to get off the field on third down continued on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. It is a trend they must reverse soon because three-turnover games are not exactly the norm in the NFL.

Happy and relieved to be 2-2 after opening the season with a pair of home losses, Washington’s challenge this week is to contain Baltimore and quarterback Joe Flacco.

The Ravens aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut so far. They are tied for 18th in points per game (21.0) and 27th in yards per play (4.95). They are also below average at converting third downs (39.34 percent, 19th overall).

But the Redskins are much, much worse in that area on defense. Through four games their defense has allowed a first down on 57.5 percent of third-down attempts. That ranks last in the NFL by an enormous margin.

Detroit is next worst at 31st overall at 47.06 percent and there is almost no gap with New England, which is 30th at 46.15 percent. The exact midpoint – 16th overall – is 40.82 percent (Carolina).

“It just isn’t good enough,” linebacker Will Compton said.

So what’s the problem? Poor tackling is an issue. Washington coach Jay Gruden noted that his team missed 11 tackles in a 31-20 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday. There have been injuries in the secondary. The Redskins have played top-notch wide receivers (Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Dallas’ Dez Bryant, New York’s Odell Beckham, Jr.). The linebackers aren’t very fast and the defensive front is largely anonymous.

But that still doesn’t explain these confounding numbers: Washington has allowed six of eight first downs when its opponent is facing a 3rd-and-10 or more. On any situation 3rd-and-8 or higher that number is 14-for-21 when the opposing offense passes.

Seven NFL defenses have met or bettered Gruden’s philosophy of stopping offenses 35 percent of the time on third down. The Redskins are not close to that. Maybe more troubling is its not like they are handing out 3rd-and-short situations.

Opponents have faced 3rd-and-3 or closer only 12 times vs. Washington. They have converted nine of those plays for first downs, of course. But that’s at least somewhat expected. It is the 3rd-and-longs that are a killer and have to stop.

“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,” Gruden said. “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.”

Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.

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