Reporting David Elfin
As if they didn’t have enough problems after being humiliated on national television during last week’s 31-16 loss at Dallas, Washington’s NFL-worst special teams coverage units now have to deal with Chicago’s record-setting return man Devin Hester on Sunday.
“What happened on Sunday night was unacceptable,” said Niles Paul, in the wake of an 86-yard punt return by the Cowboys’ Dwayne Harris for a touchdown and his 90-yard kickoff return that set up another score. “I’ve watched the film two or three times just to see what went wrong. It was embarrassing to watch each time. We need to fix it and it’s going to get fixed.”
To help that process along, eighth-year Redskin Reed Doughty, the quasi-special teams captain, is going to bring his guys together to watch extra film Friday.
“We have a lot of young guys that have never played special teams before [who] maybe don’t know how to watch special teams film,” said Doughty, adding that they need more attention to detail when things aren’t going well. “When you do that as a group you can say, ‘Hey, if you see this, I’m going to play off you.’ In the past, we had four, five, six guys that played every special team [so] you know what you’re expecting each and every week. Rock Cartwright, Mike Sellers, Khary Campbell, James Thrash, Vernon Fox [and] myself were all on one unit [in 2006-07]. [Today] we’re trying to get more guys to believe that they’re core special teams guys.”
Washington certainly hasn’t gotten it done during its first five games, ranking last in covering punts and 28th covering kickoffs.
With Tuesday’s release of reserve safety Jordan Pugh, seven of the nine players who had at least seven tackles for units that ranked eighth covering punts and 12th covering kickoffs in 2012, aren’t on the roster. Doughty, who was second, and Paul, who was third, are the only ones left. Bryan Kehl and Keenan Robinson are on injured reserve. Pro Bowl coverage ace Lorenzo Alexander is on IR with Arizona. D.J. Gomes is with Detroit. Pugh, Chris Wilson and D.J. Johnson are out of football.
“Last year, with Lorenzo being the key [guy], we all played off each other,” Paul said. “He made all of us better. I [knew] if I could force this ball in there, then either D.J. [Gomes], Lorenzo, Reed or Kehl was going to be in there to make that play. That’s what special teams is all about, being comfortable as a unit. It’s everybody being able to know if I’m taking this gap, you can replace me [there]. It’s just like offense and defense. Everybody has to mesh and be able to play off each other. You need five or six guys rallying around the ball instead of one or two people. We’re still figuring out our core group and with Kehl going down [at Dallas], that’s a big loss.”
So, apparently, was Danny Smith, the special teams coach the past nine years, who left for Pittsburgh. His replacement, Keith Burns, was a special teams star and an assistant in Denver but had never been in command before this season. Besides their coverage woes, the Redskins rank 27th in punt return average and 30th in kickoff return average. Kicker Kai Forbath, who made 17-of-18 field goal attempts last year, has already missed two of five tries. And Sav Rocca had a punt blocked for a touchdown in Week 4 at Oakland. The kicking game lost snapper Nick Sundberg to a season-ending knee injury at Dallas.
“Everybody here loved Danny and having him here was very beneficial,” Paul said. “Keith is a different guy with a different scheme. Everybody has to get used to that. I trust in Keith, [but] everybody has to believe in him. Danny was extremely vocal, but he was extremely playful at the same time. With Keith, it’s more about business. I don’t think everybody’s completely buying in to certain aspects, but we are getting to the point where we are starting to trust Keith.”
It would help if that trust ramps up by Sunday. Hester, whose 17 touchdowns on returns are an NFL record, is only averaging 5.8 yards on punt returns, but ranks third with a 30.3-yard kickoff return average.
“He’s probably licking his fingers,” Paul said. “It’s a great challenge for us. It’s a great way to come back and show the kind of special teams that we want to known as the rest of the year. We can set the tone.”
On a night that Washington’s defense allowed just 213 yards, its fewest in more than two years, and the offense gained a season-high 433 yards, the special teams did indeed set the tone. The wrong one.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.