For three consecutive weeks, the Redskins have come up short in the fourth quarter of games. The defense has lost leads, while the offense has struggled to control the ball and the clock.
It's resulted in three straight losses that head coach Joe Gibbs said was the toughest stretch of his Hall of Fame career.
In explaining the fourth quarter difficulties, players and coaches suggested that it was a matter of recognizing when key plays occur in games and rising to the occasion.
"It comes down to making the plays when we need to make them," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "We had some critical third downs that we were unable to convert. That's when you have to shine and play your best football."
Last Sunday, in a 23-17 loss to the Chargers, the Redskins were 3-of-14 on third downs for the game and just 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter.
"The teams in those close games that play their best football, make those third downs and make the big plays to keep the ball moving, those are the teams that are going to win," Brunell said. "You want to keep the ball in your hands, move it, take some time off the clock and not give it to the other team. If you give it to them enough, and give them enough chances, they are going to do something with it eventually."
The Redskins were able to make those plays in crucial situations earlier this season. Recall the Week 4 game against Seattle: Washington held a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but allowed the Seahawks to score a game-tying touchdown. Even though Seattle missed what would have been a game-winning field goal in regulation, the Redskins hung on and won on a 39-yard field goal in overtime.
But each of the last few weeks, the Redskins' offense has had third-and-short situations late in the game, and failed to convert--no matter if the play call was on the ground or in the passing game.
Clinton Portis said he is the kind of running back who wants the ball in those situations.
"On a third and two, we have to pick that up," he said. "As an offense, we have to keep the ball and not give it back to the opponent. Our defense was playing great, but anytime you give a running back like LaDainian Tomlinson that many opportunities, it's just a matter of time that he turns in a big play."
Asked about preserving fourth quarter leads on the defensive side of the ball, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams pointed toward tackling as something his defense needs to do better.
"We did not tackle well at the end of the football game against the Chargers," Williams said. "We played an awful lot of snaps at the end of the game. We ended up not tackling well on a couple of crucial plays. That was the difference in the ballgame."
Controlling the clock will be a key this Sunday in St. Louis. The Rams have boasted a high-powered offense for years and enter Sunday's game with the NFL's top-ranked passing offense.
Said Williams: "Sometimes the best defense when you're playing an offense like that is not having your defense on the field very long."
"The Rams are built for playing indoors with speed," he said. "They have a tremendous way of going about moving the ball offensively. They do a good job with tempo and what we call window dressing--they give you a lot of formations and shifts."
For the defense, a big part of the success will be recognizing those formations and shifts.
Williams has plenty of experience facing off against their high-powered offense. He was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee when the Titans played the Rams in the Super Bowl to end the 1999 season. The Rams won 23-16, but the Titans' defense was able to keep St. Louis's 'Greatest Show on Turf' in check most of the game.