In the first half of the Washington Redskins 24-6 win over the Arizona Cardinals, Washington converted on five of their seven third downs (71%) as well as going 1-for-1 on fourth down.
The Cardinals’ inability to make defensive plays led to them trailing 21-0 at half, a game sentence for a team currently lacking an offensive identity.
Looking back at Washington’s third down conversions, running back Chris Thompson was the key player that allowed them to extend drives in crucial situations.
Here’s Thompson’s first catch of the game that converted a third-and-4 situation.
Thompson was also responsible for the first points put on the boards. Here, he gets separation by faking a wheel route before breaking outside.
It’s third-and-7 on the following drive and Thompson stays in the pocket to pass protect. After the rush passes him by, he gets the shovel pass from quarterback Alex Smith. He still has seven yards to go but manages to get the first down.
The scat back also set up Smith’s QB sneak on fourth down after getting three yards on this third-and-4 play.
On three different third down situations, Smith checked down to Thompson for what should have been drive enders. Instead, Thompson did what many forgot he excelled at last season — making defenders miss.
In 2017, 13 of Thompson’s 39 receptions came on third down, he converted 10 of those into first downs. The Smith to Thompson connection is the ideal match for Redskins head coach Jay Gruden. He has his west coast quarterback who is a quick short distance thrower now paired with a check down weapon that can rack up yards after the catch. Coming into the week, it was unclear how large of a role Thompson would play, making him difficult to prepare for.
The Cardinals aren’t going to be up against a great scat back every week, closing in on an open field runner shouldn’t be an issue where opponents can convert on third downs. However, one week after struggling to bring down Thompson in key situations, the Cardinals are facing the best running back in the NFL.
In Todd Gurley’s two games against the Cardinals last season, he caught 10 passes for 132 yards. If closing in on defenders is an issue, the Cardinals linebackers will be in for another rough week.
One play to keep an eye on is the Rams go-to play action backfield screen. Last season Gurley torched the Cardinals for 33 yards on this same play.
Just last week, the Rams ran an identical play against the Oakland Raiders for a gain of 17 yards.
Gurley also ran routes through the middle of the field in open space in his two games against the Cardinals last season. However, these catches were up against man coverage, making it essentially a foot race between Gurley and the defenders.
With the Arizona defense primarily in zone coverage this season, the linebackers could possibly find themselves in a better situation. Being able to keep an eye on the quarterback as well as underneath options should mitigate large gains from backfield routes.
After Thompson got the best of them last week, we’ll see how the Cardinals defense handles Gurley and what defensive adjustments head coach Steve Wilks can make to prepare for Sunday’s game.