- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

A renewed emphasis on punt coverage during the open date has strengthened what was once the Washington Redskins' weakest aspect of special teams.
The Redskins punted 15 times in the past two games and yielded just 10 total return yards, which included eight punts with no return yards Nov. 18 at Denver. The performances came against two standout returners: Denver's Deltha O'Neal and Philadelphia's Brian Mitchell.
Strong punt coverage will be crucial if Washington is to continue winning low-scoring games. Tomorrow the Dallas Cowboys will feature Reggie Swinton, who leads the NFL with a 15.6-yard punt return average and who scored a 65-yard touchdown against Denver on Thanksgiving Day.
"We're playing a field-position, ball-control, don't-turn-it-over type of football," Redskins coach Marty Schottenheimer said yesterday. "So every aspect of the kicking game has been important, and we have indeed improved in [punt coverage]."
Washington began the season by allowing an 84-yard punt return touchdown by San Diego's Tim Dwight. And in the four games that preceded the open date, the Redskins yielded a punt return of at least 17 yards in each.
"We just have a bigger sense of urgency right now," safety Keith Lyle said. "I hate to say that we were lackadaisical early on, which we weren't. It's just that things are very important to us right now, and they'll remain that way."
Players believe the unit needed time to evolve. The Redskins had a new coaching staff. Special teams often require some shuffling to find the best personnel. And during the offseason, Schottenheimer turned over a great deal of the roster particularly the bottom half, where most special teamers are found.
A number of young players have emerged on punt coverage, such as fullback Bryan Johnson, tight end Zeron Flemister and safety Ifeanyi Ohalete. Ohalete, who plays the wing position (the edge of blocking group), particularly has impressed veteran linebacker Eddie Mason, a special teams leader.
"[Wings] get pretty much the best rush guy," Mason said. "Him being a rookie, they're going to take their shots at him. He's a done a great job. He hasn't had any punts blocked. And then getting downfield in coverage sometimes a rookie would be, 'I've got to make a tackle.' But he's been very disciplined, very unselfish, trying to take care of his responsibilities first as far as protection, and then staying in his lane."

Mr. Versatility
Linebacker Robert Jones is set to make his fourth straight start on the weak side after shifting to the middle late Sunday when Kevin Mitchell was injured. Jones also has played on the strong side, filling in earlier for LaVar Arrington.
Jones was signed to compete in the middle, where he played from 1992 to 1997 for Dallas and St. Louis, but a sprained knee in the preseason left him a backup. A strongside starter from 1998 to 2000 at Miami, Jones now brings a unique approach to the weak side, which normally is manned by a quicker, smaller linebacker.
"I approached it as a middle linebacker," Jones said. "I said, 'Nobody's going to run a lead over here. And if they run it, it's going to be tough.' I'm a physical guy, with a physical approach to the game. I'm going to make it difficult for a fullback over there if teams think they're going to run it to the weak side."
Moving back to the middle was no problem even though Jones hadn't practiced there since the preseason. The veteran kept an eye on other linebackers' duties during practice just in case of such an event. A salary-cap cut by St. Louis in 1998, Jones knows that the best way to stay in the league is to be versatile.
"I'm 32," Jones said with a smile. "At my age, when you can be a student of the game, it not only gives you an advantage on the field, but it also lets coaches know that here's a guy who, if someone gets hurt, we can move him [around] and it will be no problem. … Hopefully teams will see that especially the Redskins at the end of this year."

Health watch
Kevin Mitchell, whose bruised shoulder was the Redskins' most concerning injury, will start in the middle. Reserve offensive lineman Matt Campbell (knee) will be Washington's only absence. Fullback Donnell Bennett recovered from the flu and practiced.

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