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Paul Domowitch: Between the tackles: Eagles' third-down troubles resurface

LANDOVER, Md. - Third down had been a big part of the Eagles' Lazaruslike return from the dead the last 3 weeks. But not yesterday. Yesterday, their problems on third down were one of the main reasons they saw their promising playoff hopes crash and burn.

Redskins' London Fletcher (right) goes after ball fumbled by Donovan McNabb in third quarter.
Redskins' London Fletcher (right) goes after ball fumbled by Donovan McNabb in third quarter.Read moreRON CORTES / Staff photographer

LANDOVER, Md. - Third down had been a big part of the Eagles' Lazaruslike return from the dead the last 3 weeks. But not yesterday. Yesterday, their problems on third down were one of the main reasons they saw their promising playoff hopes crash and burn.

After converting an impressive 66 percent of their third-down chances in consecutive wins over Arizona, the New York Giants and Cleveland, the Eagles were a pitiful 3-for-14 in their 10-3 loss to the Redskins.

In those wins over the Cardinals, Giants and Browns, they converted 22 of 26 third downs of 5 yards or fewer. In yesterday's loss to the Redskins, they made just two of six.

"We weren't able to convert on third down like we have been in previous games," said quarterback Donovan McNabb. "If you don't convert on third down and continue on with your drive, then you find yourself on the sideline waiting for the next opportunity. [Our third-down problems] cost us a chance to get into a rhythm. You can't win many games that way."

During their three-game winning streak, the Eagles did a good job of mixing the run and the pass. They had 30-plus rushing attempts in all three games. But against the Redskins, even with two of their top four wide receivers out with injuries, Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg returned to their pass-happy ways.

With the Redskins putting eight defenders in the box much of the game, the Eagles threw the ball 46 times and ran it 16 times. Running back Brian Westbrook had just four rushing attempts in the second half. Four!

"We certainly could have run it [more]," said Mornhinweg, the Eagles' offensive coordinator. "But they were playing an extra guy in the box most of the day. And they were playing their two, three and four corners. They were giving us free access [to pass] out there. We tried to take advantage of that, but didn't.

"We never got into a rhythm. We would just start to get in a rhythm and then couldn't execute the next play."

That next play usually was third down.

"We weren't very good at it," Mornhinweg said. "And then we didn't help ourselves. Some of those [third-down situations] were long-yardage situations. This [Redskins'] defense is very good on long-yardage situations."

Six of the Eagles' 14 third-down situations were 8 yards or less, and they converted just one of those, a third-and-7 on the Eagles' first possession of the third quarter in which McNabb hit wide receiver Reggie Brown with a 10-yard completion.

But McNabb wasted that one three plays later when he had the ball stripped from behind by defensive end Jason Taylor. Linebacker London Fletcher recovered the fumble and returned it 12 yards to the Philadelphia 18. Four plays later, running back Clinton Portis scored on a 1-yard run on third-and-goal to give Washington a 10-0 lead.

But it was the Eagles' inability to convert the "manageable" third-downs, ones of 5 yards or less, that did them in. In their wins over Arizona, the Giants and Cleveland, they converted 17 of 18 third downs of 3 yards or less. Against the Redskins, they were 1-for-4

In their first loss to the Redskins in early October, they had a third-and-1 at the Washington 2 blow up in their faces when tight end L.J. Smith lined up on the wrong side and Redskins defensive end Andre Carter came free and tackled Westbrook for a 3-yard loss. They had to settle for a field goal and lost, 23-17.

Late in the third quarter yesterday, they had a third-and-3 at the Washington 5. Mornhinweg called a quick screen to the left side to Westbrook. But Eagles left guard Todd Herremans missed a block on safety Chris Horton, who held Westbrook to a 1-yard gain.

The Eagles had to settle for a 22-yard David Akers field goal that made it 10-3. If Westbrook had gotten into the end zone on that play, the Eagles would have been able to kick a game-tying field goal on their final possession and send the game into overtime.

"I was talking to our offensive linemen," Westbrook said of the failed screen. "[Left guard] Todd [Herremans] said he got tripped up on the play. We had it blocked pretty well, but their safety made a nice play."

Said McNabb: "The safety did a great job of getting over there. But if we had gotten a body on him, Brian would have walked right into the end zone."

Thumbs down

-- To the Eagles' daylong problems catching the football. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson had two costly drops, both in the fourth quarter, including one in the end zone on a perfectly thrown ball by Donovan McNabb. While tight end L.J. Smith caught seven passes, he also dropped three or four. And cornerback Asante Samuel and Quintin Mikell both dropped interceptions. Mikell's would have prevented a field goal by kicker Shaun Suisham. Samuel's would have given the Eagles the ball near midfield in the fourth quarter. Instead, Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier pinned the Eagles on their 3-yard line.

-- To Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg for the lopsided playcalling. So the Redskins put an extra man in the box much of the game. So what? That's no excuse for 46 passes and 16 runs. That's no excuse for giving the ball to Brian Westbrook just four times in the second half. Enough already.

By the numbers

-- In their two losses to the Redskins, the Eagles had 21 offensive possessions. Nine of those 21 were three-and-outs. They gained fewer than 20 yards on 13 of them.

-- In the Eagles' win over the Browns, 18 of Donovan McNabb's 25 completions went to wide receivers. Yesterday, wideouts caught just eight of his 26 completions.

-- In their last six games, the Eagles' defense has allowed just 2.9 yards per carry.

-- The Eagles have given up just 22 sacks this season. If they don't give up any in Sunday's final regular-season game against Dallas, they will equal the club-record for sacks allowed in a 16-game season, first set in 1981.

-- Brian Westbrook had six receptions for 71 yards yesterday. In his last four games against the Redskins, he has 25 catches for 271 yards.

-- Westbrook, who had 18 touches against the Redskins, has had 25 or more touches in a game just four times this season. Last year, he had 11 games with 25 or more touches.

-- With yesterday's loss, the Eagles' November/December record since 2005 is 17-15-1. From 2000 to '04 it was 34-8.

-- For the fourth time this season, McNabb didn't throw a touchdown pass. Since 2000, the Eagles' record in games in which McNabb doesn't throw a TD pass is 8-17.

-- McNabb ran the ball just twice for 8 yards yesterday. In his last seven games against the Redskins, he's run the ball 20 times. In his first 10 games against them, he ran it 62 times.

-- With two sacks against the Redskins, the Eagles now have 43. Defensive linemen have accounted for 30 1/2 of those 43. Their 43 sacks are the most since 2004 when they had 47.

Paul Domowitch's Eagles-Redskins Report Card


The Redskins put eight men in the box most of the night, which was enough to scare the Eagles into passing on almost every down. Brian Westbrook ran the ball just four times for 12 yards in the second half.

Grade: D-minus


The absences of Hank Baskett and Kevin Curtis hurt a passing game that was plagued by the dropsies. DeSean Jackson had two big drops, including one that would have been a tying touchdown. Tight end L.J. Smith let at least three balls slip through his hands.

Grade: D-minus


The Eagles, who gave up 203 rushing yards to the Redskins in their first meeting, held them to 122 and 3.8 yards per carry. Redskins had just two double-digit runs.

Grade: B


Asante Samuel and Quintin Mikell dropped potential game-changing interceptions. But the Eagles did hold Jason Campbell and the Redskins to 4.4 yards per attempt and no touchdowns.

Grade: B


Return men DeSean Jackson and Quintin Demps were non-factors. Time and time again, Redskins punter Ryan Plackemeier pinned the Eagles deep in their own territory.

Grade: C


An offense that had converted 33 of 50 third-down opportunities in wins over Arizona, the Giants and Cleveland converted just 3 of 14 against the Redskins. While the 'Skins put eight and nine defenders in the box much of the night, that's no excuse for having your running backs run just 13 times.

Grade: F