Quarterback Case Keenum stood back in the shotgun on the Redskins' second drive of the game against the Miami Dolphins last weekend, raised his hands and yelled out the signal for center Chase Roullier to snap the ball.
Keenum, who reclaimed the starting job after two weeks of getting replaced and recovering from a foot injury, had just completed a second-down pass to Kelvin Harmon for eight yards, making it third-and-two from Washington’s 26-yard line.
Keenum settled in the pocket, found his man and fired the ball to wide receiver Paul Richardson. The pass was incomplete, which meant punter Tress Way and the rest of the punt formation began to trot their way onto the field and give the ball back to the Dolphins.
The sequence is one the Redskins have been familiar with all year. With a third-down conversion rate of 23.44%, the team ranks next to last in the NFL ahead of only the New York Jets. It’s one of the things interim head coach Bill Callahan has been trying to fix since taking over as interim head coach.
“That’s really been the focus the last two days of going out on the field and working second-down conversion football,” Callahan said after last Thursday's practice. “Today we worked on third-down. We had a pressure drill and we had another third-down [and] mixed-down period and really focused on working all the coverages on all the conversion that are necessary against those coverages that we’re going to see.”
The Redskins’ offense has faced third downs 64 times through six games, and half of them have been longer down-and-distances. An example of this was against the Patriots in Week 5, when the Redskins were in third-and-long six times.
But the other half of the offense’s third-down scenarios have been where it needs five yards or less to convert. The team has passed the ball on 26 of those plays, which Callahan said has been largely determined by the situation.
“Short-yardage situations, third-and-one to two, they’re always balanced run-pass-option downs,” Callahan said. “Third down and three-to-four, three-to-five, those are downs where you can mix it somehow, but you really gotta be outstanding to generate a five-yard run on third-and-five against the different types of pressure you can potentially see.”
The Redskins have only run the ball five times in third-and-short situations all year, and they didn’t run the ball at all on third down against the Dolphins. But Callahan said it wasn’t that the team was reluctant to run in those situations; it just has trust in the passing game to make plays.
“We just have a lot of confidence in Case and our receivers,” Callahan said. “It didn’t work out as well in Miami. I thought we could have done a better job versus the press-man [coverage] that we got. We’ve gotta get back to the drawing board a little bit and work harder, be a little more diligent in our technique in terms of defeating man coverage, and that’s no secret.”
Still, getting in manageable third downs has been one of the offense’s primary focuses.
“Third-and-shorts are key,” Roullier said. “Making sure we’re in manageable third downs … allows us to make sure the drives are continuing to move forward and we’re not getting stalled out. So whenever you can keep them third-and-short, that’s the way you want it.”
The team has not been shy about wanting to turn into a running team, and that’s what they want to do in those short situations to keep the drives moving. But that isn’t always an easy task, and Callahan made it clear that the Redskins will have a “really good challenge” going up against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
“They’re solid in every area: in their front, in their backend, their second-level,” Callahan said. “Their speed, quickness, explosion and pursuit to the ball is one of the best in the league right now, so they’ve done a tremendous job of putting that front together.”
With the No. 2 defense in the league that ranks fourth in stopping opponents on third down, it will be one of the team’s toughest tests this year. The offense is going to need to figure out a way to stay on the field, and Callahan said the team is “preparing for everything” in order to make that happen.
“We’ve got to have a great protection plan going into this game,” he said. “It’s no secret that the [49ers] have got a good rush plan, and, of course, the pressure plan with it is outstanding. How we matchup, that can all vary because they line up in different locations, different spots and then they change those matchups based on what they see. [It’s] hard to predict, but we try to prepare for it all.”