‘Grind it out:’ Washington’s newfound success comes with rise in time of possession

ASHBURN — During Washington’s game-clinching drive against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this month, guard Brandon Scherff stopped to look at the clock when a timeout was called. There were still more than three minutes left in the contest. 

But then it dawned on Scherff and the rest of the group that they started the series with just under 11 minutes remaining. 

“We said, ‘Holy shhh,’’ said Scherff, censoring himself, “We already took (more than) six minutes off that clock.’”

As Washington rides a two-game winning streak ahead of Monday’s matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, the Burgundy and Gold’s newfound success can be attributed partly to drives like the one used to finish off the Buccaneers. Over the last few weeks, Washington has controlled time of possession — including in the team’s most recent win over the Carolina Panthers. 

That wasn’t the case to begin the season when Washington’s offense was registering as few as 49 plays. Lately, however, the team has been able to sustain drives and kill time off the clock. Against Carolina, Washington held the ball for 35:53 compared to the Panthers’ 24:03. The difference was even more severe the week prior when Washington held the ball more than 18 minutes longer than the Buccaneers. 

Washington’s 39:08 time of possession against Tampa Bay was the sixth-longest of the season in games that didn’t go to overtime, according to Pro Football Reference. 

The reasons for the change can be boiled down to a few areas. For one, Washington is running the ball more — a natural clock killer. The team is also converting on third down, helping keep the punt team off the field. 

“When you can grind it out and have long drives or stuff like that, two things happen,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “You’re wearing your opponent down on defense, and secondly, you’re keeping your defense fresh. That’s a big thing. Earlier in the year, we were playing 80-something plays on defense regularly. That takes a toll.” 

The team’s shift in approach started four weeks ago, Rivera said. The team had a season-low 19 rushing attempts against the Kansas City Chiefs on Oct. 17, and since then, offensive coordinator Scott Turner has dialed up more running plays. Over the last four games, Washington has averaged 31.8 rushing attempts per contest — whereas the team averaged 25.7 rushing attempts over the first six weeks. Washington had a season-high 40 carries for 190 yards in Carolina.

In the same span of the last four games, Washington held the ball for more than 30 minutes in each. Before then, the team did that just once in its first six games.

Lately, Washington has been able to stick with the run because it hasn’t dramatically fallen behind. Earlier in the year, when the team regularly faced double-digit deficits, Turner almost had no choice but to call pass plays for the offense to try and keep pace. 

Even when Washington decides to throw, the team has been efficient. Starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke has only 12 incompletions the last two weeks and in those games, Washington has gone 17 of 32 on third down. 

Of the team’s 17 third-down conversions, 11 came through the air. 

“We had four or five drives that went for (at least) 60 yards this past game, which is huge,” Heinicke said.  “A lot of things are starting to come in place.” 

Rivera’s willingness to go for it on fourth down has helped extend drives, too. Washington has a league-high 12 fourth-down conversions this year — six of them have come in the last four weeks. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Washington’s defense has played better as a result of the extended rest. Despite losing to the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos, the defense is allowing 286.8 yards per game in this four-game stretch, down from 349.7 yards per contest before then. 

More so, Washington’s defense has played just 200 snaps since Oct. 24 — 50 per game. Before then: The unit was averaging almost 59 per game. 

Defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis said he feels the difference.

“We’ve definitely been fresher,” Ioannidis said. “You can see it on tape. We have some spells on the bench where we’re kind of looking at the clock, like, ‘OK, we haven’t been out there in a while. Our offense has been doing a really good job controlling the clock.” 

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