The search for answers on a struggling special teams unit continues for the Redskins.
But the change in philosophy from old coach Danny Smith, who held that position from 2004 through last season, and new coach Keith Burns, is a factor. The trust that longtime special teams players had for Smith has yet to be replicated under Burns. That takes time.
“Honestly, I do think it’s still being formed,” said Niles Paul, a reserve tight end and special teams regular. “I don’t think everybody’s completely buying in to certain aspects of the teachings. But I feel like we’re getting to a point where we are starting to trust Keith and we just need to put it on film.”
It hasn’t happened yet. The Redskins have fallen apart in almost every aspect of special teams so far in 2013. They have had a punt blocked for a touchdown, fallen for a fake punt, missed three field goals and allowed two long returns against Dallas on Sunday, one of them for a touchdown.
Penalties have been a problem on special teams, too. Dwayne Harris’ punt return for a touchdown came on a second punt by Sav Rocca. The first, a fair catch deep in Cowboys’ territory, was negated by an illegal motion penalty. And Washington’s own return game on kickoffs and punts has been ineffective, too.
Part of the issue, according to multiple players, is the sheer number of players being used on different special teams units. In the past, Washington had a core group of five or six regulars who could be counted on to fill most roles. Injuries and the loss of special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander to free agency last spring have taken a toll.
“We just need guys to just step up and to really take pride and ownership,” said Bryan Kehl, a reserve linebacker and special teams ace. “I don’t know what everybody else’s mindset is. But I’ve been in the league for six years and I’ve never been a starter. I take pride in just being special teams player and if I’m going to step out there I’m going to do my best.”
Unfortunately, Kehl won’t get to do that again this season. He tore the ACL in his left knee on Harris’ punt return and was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday. But it is an assessment Paul agrees with.
“When I first got in the league, I didn’t really see special teams as my future because you’re coming from somewhere where you’re the man,” said Paul, who played at Nebraska. “You starting off, but I didn’t really play special teams in college at all until I got here. And I had guys like Lorenzo and Reed [Doughty] to show me that being out here is a privilege…I think we kind of lost focus on that part.”
And so Doughty, one of the last remaining holdovers from when the Redskins were one of the league’s best special teams units year-in and year-out, wants to hold an extra film session this Friday to help the younger players acclimate. That wasn’t always necessary in the past with veterans like Alexander and Rock Cartwright and Mike Sellers and James Thrash, among others. It is now. Both Paul and Doughty used the word “embarrassing” to describe Washington’s special teams this season. It wasn’t dropped lightly.
“At the end of the day it’s a player’s responsibility to tackle the guy with the football and how we get there really makes no difference,” Doughty said of the Burns’ new techniques. “There are some philosophy differences and different lane integrity and assignments when you get things on punt and on kickoff. But at the end of the day, we’ve still got to go down there and make plays.”