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Commanders looking to fix red zone issues in final stretch of season

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Terry McLaurin wore the same disappointed look that every player in the Washington Commanders' locker room had on their faces as he addressed the media. 

The despondency is understandable; the Commanders had a chance to drastically improve their playoff chances with a win over the New York Giants. Instead, Washington consistently tripped over itself with missed opportunities in a 20-12 loss at home. The team still sits in the seventh seed, but the certainty that it will hold the spot for the remaining three weeks of the regular season has taken a severe hit. 

The Commanders' offense was derailed by these gaffes more so than the other units, and as reporters crowded around the team captain for his thoughts, he summed up most of Washington's issues in just two sentences. 

"We definitely had some opportunities in the red zone," McLaurin said. "We got in the red zone a few times, and we didn't quite capitalize on third downs to keep the chains moving."

Failing to finish drives in the end zone was the Commanders' undoing against the Giants. The struggles go back further than the primetime game, but last Sunday's division loss proved that something must change. And with the final slate of games carrying so much weight towards the Commanders' playoff hopes, the change must happen quickly.

Washington has worked on establishing an identity of running the ball and controlling the clock for the better part of three months, and there are signs that the effort has paid off. The Commanders are first in time of possession and 11th in rushing offense. Much of that is a credit to averaging 148 yards on the ground since Week 6, and it has helped Washington move the ball well between the 20-yard lines.

Things begin to fall apart once the offense gets in the red zone, though. Washington is 23rd in red zone touchdowns this season and 2-of-5 in its two matchups with the Giants. Considering how close both games were, getting a touchdown on even one of those drives would have made a difference.

"We knew we missed opportunities," Ron Rivera said after the Week 15 loss. "We can't do that. We talked about that when we were off last week, that the red zone was something we had to be better at. And we didn't do that."

Washington failed to score twice against the Giants despite having the ball at the New York 5-yard line on its final two possessions. One would have ended in a field goal were it not for a fumble by Taylor Heinicke, while the other had the potential to tie the game with a minute left in regulation.

"Guys just aren't focused," said running back Brian Robinson. "Penalties, putting us in bad situations. We just have to eliminate the penalties and focus in, and we should be able to score on all of our red zone drives."

Although it is partly because of the Commanders' commitment to the ground attack, the passing game has lagged behind during the team's stretch run. These deficiencies are even more prevalent in the red zone, where the windows are smaller and anticipation is even more important. There have been moments, such as the miss to John Bates against the Atlanta Falcons, where Heinicke sees the right read but holds the ball a tick too long, which leads to incompletions.

Rivera believes Heinicke can "absolutely" improve that area of his skillset, but it ultimately comes down to getting reps.

"A lot of times when you go through that and you see it in practice, you see it a certain way," Rivera said. "Well, if one and two are open in practice, it's a different tempo. my opinion, we've gotta make sure we can stress to him, 'Hey, this is gonna happen, but if it's not there, you've gotta get over here quickly to this read.'"

Rivera also brought up the point on Monday that Heinicke will wait for a receiver to get to a window before moving on to another option. The staff wants to help him speed things up.

"We've gotta keep that clock in his head going and continue to do those things," Rivera said.

The other fact is keeping Robinson and the running game involved once the offense gets in scoring position. Robinson has been rolling as of late with 290 yards in the last three games, but according to ESPN's John Keim, the running back has 1 carry for two yards in the red zone during that span.

Circumstances have dictated some of that, but Rivera would like to see more of Robinson closer to the goal line.

"I do most certainly think that's part of our winning formula, and that is to be able to run the ball successfully because it validates your play action, it validates bootlegs, it validates nakeds and keepers and stuff like that," Rivera said.

The next opportunity for Washington to fix its red zone woes will be in San Francisco against the 49ers on Christmas Eve. The 49ers are a force on defense, allowing a league-low 286.1 yards per game and 74.7 yards on the ground.

However, there should be opportunities for the Commanders at Levi's Stadium, as the 49ers have allowed red zone touchdowns on 55% of opponents' drives. Either way, the Commanders cannot leave points on the board.

"We get into the red zone, we gotta put it in the end zone," Rivera said. "We absolutely gotta get touchdowns instead of kicking field goals."

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