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Need to Know: Should the Redskins pass more on first down in 2016?

May 25, 2016, 5:49 AM EDT

Cousins-passing-vs-Bears-2

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 25, 64 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp in Richmond.

Timeline

At Redskins Park: OTA practice open to media 11:30; players available after practice; Jay Gruden news conference approx. 1:30.

—The Redskins last played a game 136 days ago. It will be 110 days until they host the Steelers in their 2016 season opener.

Days until: Redskins training camp starts 64; Preseason opener @ Falcons 78; Final roster cut 101

Pass more on first down?

There was plenty of debate over the course of the season that the Redskins should “pound the rock” more in first down. But the numbers indicate that they may have run on first down more than they should have.

Kirk Cousins (the only player to attempt a first-down pass in 2015) dropped back to pass 207 times on first down. He completed 145 passes for 1770 yards and he was sacked nine times for 75 yards in losses. On average the Redskins gained 8.2 yards per pass on first down.

They ran the ball on first more often than they threw, 238 times (53.5% of first-downs snaps). Those runs gained 781 yards, or 3.3 per play. You don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out that they gained well over twice as many yards by passing on first down than they did by running.

In case you’re wondering about turnover factor, Cousins threw two interceptions on first down and there were no fumbles in first-down running plays. Perhaps a valid reason for running on first but you’d have a hard time convincing me that turning it over on less than on percent of the passes should be much of a deterrent considering the yardage differential on first down.

Those numbers show us all game situations including some when the other team might be in a prevent defense and giving the Redskins the 10-yard passes while playing to prevent the deeper balls. So let’s narrow it down a bit and try to find “normal” situations.

Let’s look at how effective the plays are when you the game is competitive. When the game was within 10 points either way in 2015, the Redskins ran considerably more on first down, 166 times (56.8%), than they passed, 126 times (43.2%). But they averaged 3.3 yards per rushing play and 9.3 per passing play. Why not flip flop the play selection and pass more like 60 percent of the time? Looking at the numbers, you can legitimately ask why they should run on first down at all.

Of course, these numbers don’t tell the whole story. A team has to have a certain degree of unpredictability so the defense can’t stack up to stop the play. But if I’m Jay Gruden I am spending some time figuring out the minimum number of times I can run the ball on first down and still have the opposing defense honor it.

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  1. redskins12thman - May 25, 2016 at 6:31 AM

    i think you hit the nail on the head in your final paragraph: the key is for the Redskins play calling to be as unpredictable as possible.

    The Redskins also need to improve the amount of yards gained per rushing attempt, which results from improved offensive line play / blocking, Jones’ patience in finding the holes and the type of run plays called (i.e., the ones that yield more yards per play). I think run plays that stretched the width of the field yielded more yards per play than the plays that were right up the gut; perhaps that speaks to the issues the team faced when LeRibeus and Long were in the lineup. How different would the run statistics be if you just looked at the games when both Lauvao and Lichtensteiger were in the lineup?

    For all downs, unpredictability / a balanced attack and gaining more turnovers than conceding will be key to the Redskins success; effective running is particularly helpful in controlling the clock, which can be critical in trying to win games against the better teams.

    • Rich Tandler - May 25, 2016 at 7:56 AM

      I get the improving yards per carry. I was going to get into that but I didn’t want a long, numbers heavy post first thing in the morning (one or the other is OK). But even if it improves to around 4 you still are better off passing the ball. The best result of a first and 10 play isn’t second and six, it’s another first and 10.

      • abanig - May 25, 2016 at 8:21 AM

        Yes but an completion puts you at 2nd and 10 then the D will know what you’re likely to do the next two downs which is pass.

        It’s a balancing act, we can’t be as predictable as were last year on first down with almost always running but we can’t abandon the run either.

        • bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 8:46 AM

          Norvel was quite successful with 2nd and 10 runs; halving the distance to make 3rd and manageable. Last year the team wasn’t too bad on 2nd and 10 throwing the ball as well. Bottom line the passing game worked last year and the justified fear of “oh no here’s a three an out” from 2013 and 2014 are gone.

          Let’s not forget how many 2nd and 10 or greater we had last year BECAUSE we rand the ball on first down.

        • abanig - May 25, 2016 at 11:25 AM

          Well that’s also why improving the running game is important as well. We must do both. We have to switch it up on 1st down and throw some, but there is some risk involved

        • bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 12:43 PM

          Here’s my problem with WE NEED TO FIX THE RUN GAME crowd. First, that is obvious. Second, at what cost? Third, what are the obvious fixes?

          There are no obvious fixes! The personnel is the same EXCEPT for Vernon Davis and the guys returning from injury. These guys returning from injury (Lauvao, Lichtensteiger, Paul, and Paulsen) don’t have a long standing track record of getting it done in the run game under this head coach. However, in 2014 the Redskins were 19th in rushing yards and 14th in yards per carry at 4.21 and I think after last year, that would be welcomed production. But it also remains to be seen if the injured guys can return to form another year older.

          With the strength of the team being the passing game and the weapons in the passing game (including the backs and o-line), it behooves the Redskins to throw it more. Here’s the BUT. But part of the passing game’s success was related to the run looks — the play action, the formations used for running the ball, and the TENDENCIES to run in certain down and distance. So, yeah, there does need to be balance but the pigheadedness to stick to run needs to be on a short leash and part of that pigheadedness was due to not trusting/not knowing what the QB was capable of. Those numbers will come closer to 50/50 this year.

        • abanig - May 25, 2016 at 12:51 PM

          Well I agree with that. Still, I do think Lauvao, Kory and Davis or Paulsen being in when will have a far better running game than last year but as you said the strength is the passing game and we’ll be found that more.

    • troylok - May 25, 2016 at 11:50 AM

      I agree that predictability is a detriment in the run game. I understand that they had no blocking tight end last year, but every time they trucked Compton into the lineup, everyone in the stadium knew it was going to be a run play. Then, later on they started using jumbo packages on first down, giving up the whole pretense that they were going to do anything other than run the ball.

      Predictability in the passing game is also a problem for the run game. A lack of deep passes encouraged the safeties to creep up in run defense – especially on first down. Cousins gets rid of the ball very quickly. That is a good thing in that he rarely gets sacked, but it is also a bad thing in that it doesn’t give his receivers time to get deep. Defenses just start playing short zone, compressing the spacing between defenders to limit the lanes for the running back.

      • John - May 25, 2016 at 12:05 PM

        No blocking tight ends in the picture necessitated Compton on running downs.

        Regarding deep balls, Jackson was out for the first half of the season and there was no other credible deep threat or someone that could get deep and don’t say Rashad Ross, because obviously they had no confidence in him.

        • troylok - May 25, 2016 at 2:04 PM

          As to not having a blocking tight end, I think that is what I said about why Compton was a tell. It is like Gruden never heard of running out of a four receiver set… Maybe he should consult with Mouse Davis.

          As far as no deep threat, not buying it. Jackson might have elite speed but Garcon isn’t pokey. Limiting him to underneath routes is by choice and not by necessity. Crowder had a pretty swift 40 at the combine. He has shown he can shake off a defender and get deep. Ross apparently can only run one route, but it is a fly route, so plug him in a couple of times a game and take the shot. If nothing else, it will back that secondary up a little.

      • John - May 25, 2016 at 2:48 PM

        They’ve in out of the spread, they just sucked at it. Regarding Garcon, he’s all ready lost a step. Crowder runs option route as the slot guy. Regarding Ross, fast yeah, but you have to actually beat your man and track the ball down and catch it. Gruden and company were not very high on that option. Speed is not everything in a receiver. Just throwing deep is a wasted play if nothing comes of it. Regarding the run and shoot, it works best with a mobile QB and short patterns.

  2. abanig - May 25, 2016 at 8:19 AM

    Yes, last year we were too predictable on first downs

  3. bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 8:39 AM

    This is why my mantra has been: “Sling the snot out of the ball!” This became obvious to me late in the season and the Dallas game was the boiling point. The team seemed to recognize as well and made adjustments that garnered huge leads against Chicago, New York, and Buffalo. Now if they can fix the run problem they can salt those games away but I prefer staying aggressive and running up the score.

  4. kenlinkins - May 25, 2016 at 9:23 AM

    Rich, I wonder how many times the Redskins ran the ball on first down with Compton at TE? While I do not recall the Redskins doing that to start a drive (unless they were up and trying to run out the clock) I do recall some first and 10’s with Compton at TE. If the Redskins can prove they can run the ball without placing a OT where a TE should be they will have a much improved first down rush avg.

    • bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 10:06 AM

      According to pro-football reference, he started two games last year. If that be true, he was as an extra tight-end but who knows whether the Redskins ran or threw on the play. According to Football Outsiders, he was in on 210 of 1070 offfensive snaps (19.6%).

      Compton missed and made blocks both in the run and in pass pro and the Redskins ran WITHOUT Compton on the field — quite possibly 4 out of 5 times. So the notion that Compton being on the field tipped the defense is plausible but NOT definitive. But let’s pretend that his presence tipped the defense to particular plays both running the ball and passing. And let’s pretend the defense was clued in from the jump AND had a 100% success rate stopping the run plays. If all that is true — which it obviously can’t be — it would have only affected 1 out of every 5 running plays resulting in a 4.125 yards per carry average on 1st downs without Compton on the field. That is improvement but still less than half as effective as throwing the ball. Furthermore, Compton is no longer on the team so it IS and continues to be MORE about the execution of the play and less about the predictability of the play called.

      • ET - May 25, 2016 at 12:24 PM

        I’m curious what the breakdown of run v. pass was with Compton on the field. You’re right, ultimately, that he wasn’t that large of a factor regardless of outcome. But the anecdotal feeling here is that last year’s offense had some pretty obvious tells regarding packages and personnel. Hopefully those tells aren’t as obvious moving forward. No sense in helping the defense do its job.

        • bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 12:58 PM

          True. Just about every Redskin fan felt they knew the play before the snap based on personnel or down and distance. But this is where we fans allow those feelings of frustration to cloud our view of reality. Reality is that the Redskins won 5 out of the last 6, 7 out of the last 10, the division, were 17th in total offense, 10th in yards per play [(5.6) including ALL those negative running plays], and were 5th in 3rd down percentage despite the ineptitude of the run game and the apparent predictability of the offense.

  5. renhoekk2 - May 25, 2016 at 9:31 AM

    If I’m Cousins and the offensive philosophy is that we become a pass heavy offense (even by current NFL standards) because we have no running game and the team makes zero effort to improve it in the off season, my contract demands just went up. A lot.

    • bangkokben - May 25, 2016 at 9:40 AM

      It’s the kind of situation/opportunity that if he doesn’t get a long-term contract before the deadline bodes well for his bank account if he stays at or near last year’s level.

  6. smotion55 - May 25, 2016 at 1:02 PM

    In his second year as the starting QB they should let Cousins change the play at the line to
    pass plays when they load the box . If they give him that freedom and they burn some people on 1st down plus a blocking TE on the field should have a big effect on 1st downs this year. They should be as unpredictable as any team in the league this year and if not then they should give somebody his walking papers next year.
    This of course means depending on a having couple of backs that are at least average at running and catching the ball out of he backfield once in a while.

  7. John - May 25, 2016 at 1:37 PM

    The running game needs to be at least serviceable to make the defense respect the run and give the offense options. Sure, they can pass but there are times where you need to impose your will on the other team and run out the clock. I would say those 15 play drives early in the year gave the offense the confidence that they could score when they had to even if it meant short runs mixed in with short to mid range passes on multiple play drives. Late in the year they put it on Kirks shoulders as the running game just was not a threat

  8. shermanp79 - May 25, 2016 at 3:18 PM

    This is a passing league , especially during the regular season. You need to run the ball but you can pass to set up the run. With their lack of urgency bringing in bodies at RB, (aside from some serious confidence in Jones), they must have decided to lean on the pass. It is the strongest part of the Roster, (the WR pos ) and If Cousins continues to improve, along with the OL they should be a nightmare for most teams if they stay healthy.

    I think they adjusted last year, as the season went along. But they were predictable in the first half of season. That is one thing they can’t do. This will be year 3 and I think Gruden opens things up. He has as many weapons, if not more as in CIN. Even RB isn’t that far off but CIN had bit advantage….Maybe not?? Point is , this Offense should lead the way!! BY PASSING!

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