Third-and-long. It's supposed to be an advantage for a defense. That wasn't the case on Sunday for the Eagles against Washington, and it's a point of emphasis for coordinator Bill Davis and his coaches this week.
"We've got to get off the field on third down," safety Malcolm Jenkins said after Washington converted 9-of-17 third downs in a 23-20 loss on Sunday. "It killed us today. Whatever it takes, we need to get off the field."
Washington set the tone for third downs on its first drive on Sunday at a time when the Eagles had the Redskins pinned at their 11-yard line facing a third-and-19 play. Instead of having quarterback Kirk Cousins throw the ball down the field, Washington handed off inside to running back Chris Thompson and had ran untouched up the gut of the defense for a 42-yard gain to the Philadelphia 47-yard line.
"Sickening," is what Davis said about the play after the game. "There's no way that should've got out there. I could have had a better call. We could have played it better."
Washington converted two more third downs on that drive -- a third-and-8 play that became third-and-3 when Fletcher Cox was penalized for a neutral-zone infraction and then Cousins threw a screen pass to Thompson on the edge against man coverage that gained 19 yards -- and then on a third-and-7 play when Cousins completed a pass to Pierre Garcon for 11 yards. Washington scored three points on the drive.
One possession later, Cousins passed to tight end Jordan Reed to convert a third-and-4 situation on a drive that led to three more Redskins points.
Twice in a second quarter touchdown drive, Washington converted big third downs -- one a third-and-5 pass to Jamison Crowder that gained 9 yards and one a third-and-8 pass into the end on which cornerback Eric Rowe was penalized for pass interference.
Another important third-down conversion happened in the third quarter when Cousins found Crowder for 22 yards to convert a third-and-13 play to put the Redskins in field goal range, which gave Washington a 16-13 lead late in the period.
On Washington's game-winning touchdown drive, the offense converted twice on third down, including a third-and-6 pass to Garcon that gained 14 yards and put Washington at the Eagles' 14-yard line with a first down.
"They had some good calls. We made some plays on third down, but we didn't make enough of them on third down. Third down was a place that we had been strong in coming up to this (game) and we didn't execute as well on third down tonight," Davis said.
The areas to improve? The Eagles must be more relentless with their pass rush, and they have to follow the scheme to a T, but they also have to stop killing themselves. The defense has been whistled for 362 yards of penalties, second most in the NFL. That has contributed to a third-down conversion rate allowed of 40 percent, which ranks tied for 16th-best in the NFL.
"It's all about getting off the field," safety Walter Thurmond said. "It's on us. We've been in some good situations and we had good calls and we just didn't make the plays we needed to make. So that's our responsibility."
Quarterback Drew Brees comes to town on Sunday as New Orleans looks to rally after its overtime win over Dallas. Brees won't be fooled by coverages. Gimmicks aren't going to work. The Eagles are going to need good, solid, fundamental defense to turn away a versatile Saints offensive attack.
It doesn't get easier after that, as Eli Manning and the Giants play at Lincoln Financial Field. The defense, which has done a lot of good things through the first quarter of the season, must rise to the challenge.
"It's about being consistent for 60 minutes and following our assignments and being sound," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "Third downs killed us here. We have to find a way to get off the field. It's not about fatigue or anything like that. They made the plays and we didn't and we're sitting here with a loss. It feels lousy. We have to find a way to turn it around."
Third-and-long is a good place for a defense to be. The Eagles need to complete the task on defense, get to the sidelines and do so for four quarters. Third-and-long is a focal point, then, for a defense that just didn't get enough stops on Sunday to satisfy anyone.