Third and wrong De­fense on key down still a glar­ing con­cern

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE

Af­ter Car­son Wentz spun away from two would-be sacks like a 6-foot-5 bal­le­rina to de­liver a 58-yard touch­down pass on third and 12, the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins only could ap­plaud the Hou­dini­like elu­sive­ness of Philadel­phia’s sec­ondyear quar­ter­back.

Had it been a lone, freak­ishly ath­letic play, Wentz’s strike to wide re­ceiver Nel­son Agholor for the open­ing score in the Ea­gles’ 30-17 vic­tory over the Red­skins on Sun­day prob­a­bly wouldn’t have war­ranted tremen­dous soul-search­ing.

In­stead, it proved a sign of things to come. The Ea­gles con­verted 8 of 14 third downs (57 per­cent) — six com­ing on third and longs — in hand­ing the Red­skins’ their fourth con­sec­u­tive sea­son-open­ing de­feat un­der Coach Jay Gru­den. (The Red­skins’ of­fense, by con­trast, con­verted just 3 of 11 third downs.)

The Red­skins’ third-down de­fense was a glar­ing prob­lem amid an oth­er­wise en­cour­ag­ing de­but by Greg Manusky’s re­tooled unit, which kept the team in con­tention de­spite four turnovers.

With seven new de­fen­sive starters, Wash­ing­ton’s de­fense held Philadel­phia to 58 rush­ing yards. Linebacker Ryan Ker­ri­gan re­turned an in­ter­cep­tion for a touch­down, par­ing the deficit to 13-7 mid­way through the sec­ond quar­ter. But at crit­i­cal junc­tures, Wentz slipped out of the pocket to com­plete drive-sus­tain­ing throws that kept the score out of reach — in­clud­ing a 12-yard com­ple­tion on third and 10, a 10-yard com­ple­tion on third and six and a 30-yard com­ple­tion on third and 10.

Last sea­son, no NFL team fared worse on third-down de­fense than the Red­skins, who al­lowed con­ver­sions 46.6 per­cent of the time. That fail­ing went a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing the team’s 8-7-1 record.

A sur­vey of NFL teams’ records from 2012 to 2016 showed a no­table cor­re­la­tion be­tween third-down de­fense and over­all suc­cess. NFL teams that held

op­po­nents’ third-down con­ver­sions un­der 35 per­cent won an av­er­age of 9.1 games dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

Teams that al­lowed third-down con­ver­sion-rates of 35 to 40 per­cent won an av­er­age of 8.4 games. Those that al­lowed 40 to 45 per­cent con­ver­sion rates won 7.4 games. And teams that al­lowed 45 per­cent or higher won an av­er­age of 5.3 games.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got the rush the passer,” Gru­den said Wed­nes­day, asked about the de­fense’s poor show­ing on third down. “You can’t give the quar­ter­back time to throw and set his feet like we did. It’s easy for pro quar­ter­backs to pick you apart and find an open re­ceiver if they have time.”

Red­skins pass-rush­ers showed speed and power in get­ting to Wentz. Bring­ing him down proved tougher, although linebacker Preston Smith notched one sack and Ker­ri­gan com­bined with Matt Ioan­ni­dis for an­other.

Said nose tackle Ziggy Hood: “We did a great job of get­ting back there to [ Wentz]. He just did an even bet­ter job of play­ing back­yard foot­ball — scram­bling around and mak­ing plays with his feet. Give credit to him. It was a tug of war match, and we lost a cou­ple of them.”

By Gru­den’s count, four Red­skins sacks went want­ing as a re­sult.

Gru­den said he ex­pects Ju­nior Galette, who was on the field for just 16 de­fen­sive plays Sun­day, to have a big­ger role against the Rams. “We’ve got to ease him back to make sure he’s ready to go,” Gru­den said of Galette, a feared pass-rusher when he signed with the Red­skins in 2015, only to be side­lined the past two sea­sons by Achilles’ tears. “He’s go­ing to earn his right and get more and more reps. I think next week you’ll see him prob­a­bly get 25 reps or 30.”

At 6-5 and 237 pounds, Wentz may be more dif­fi­cult to top­ple than the av­er­age NFL quar­ter­back. But the Red­skins face an­other big quar­ter­back Sun­day in the Rams’ 6-4 Jared Goff.

To rat­tle Goff, de­fen­sive end Stacy McGee said the Red­skins’ front must “rush as one.”

For­mer Buf­falo linebacker Zach Brown, whom the Red­skins signed in the off­sea­son for his pass-rush­ing skill, said he doesn’t be­lieve the de­fense needs to do any­thing rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent go­ing for­ward. It just has to do it bet­ter.

“We have to just make sure we get the quar­ter­back to the ground,” said Brown, who led the Red­skins with 12 tack­les, in­clud­ing two for a loss, against the Ea­gles. “They had him. They were in his face. They had him mov­ing around. The [de­fen­sive backs] can’t cover for eight sec­onds, so that’s re­ally on us. When we don’t get the quar­ter­back down, we feel bad be­cause it’s on us. It’s on us more than on the sec­ondary.”

For­mer NFL linebacker Chris Spielman, a four-time Pro Bowl se­lec­tion who will call Sun­day’s Red­skins-Rams game for Fox, be­lieves the Red­skins have enough tal­ent on de­fense to take a sig­nif­i­cant step for­ward this sea­son. He’s im­pressed with Brown’s play­mak­ing abil­ity. And while he be­lieves the loss of linebacker Trent Mur­phy to a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury hurt Wash­ing­ton’s pass rush, he thinks tal­ent isn’t an is­sue, not­ing the ad­di­tion of first-round pick Jonathan Allen and the strong first game by Ker­ri­gan.

“Ev­ery­thing is in place,” Spielman said. “Tal­ent-wise, I think they’re fine. It’s not about go­ing out and find­ing play­ers. It’s about do­ing it.”

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Linebacker Zach Brown, right, and the Red­skins’ de­fense al­lowed quar­ter­back Car­son Wentz and the Ea­gles to con­vert 8 of 14 third downs (57 per­cent) Sun­day.

JONATHAN NEW­TON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Nose tackle Ziggy Hood, left, and the Red­skins had dif­fi­culty bring­ing down Car­son Wentz, the Ea­gles’ 6-foot-5, 237-pound quar­ter­back.

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