The chaos of covering a kickoff return is a beautiful thing to Lorenzo Alexander. Maybe that’s because, to him, it’s not chaos at all.
“The way he prepares and knows what’s coming, it’s like the play is already made before it happens,” Redskins fullback Darrel Young said.
“You listen to the way he talks and you’re like, ‘Man, how did you see that?’ He’ll say, ‘Well, they did this in Week 3 on a certain return.’ You’re like, ‘How are you thinking about Week 3? It’s Week 12!’ “
Alexander, the two-time reigning Redskins special teams player of the year, has built his career on one of the most nuanced portions of the sport. His physical prowess, leadership and desire that extends to the film room have made him one of Washington’s most respected players.
“If there’s a better special teams player in this league, I haven’t seen it,” said special teams coach Danny Smith, who’s in his 13th season coaching it at the NFL level. “I’ll match him up against anybody.”
Alexander, 28, is a big reason why the Redskins’ coverage team has ranked in the NFL’s top five in kickoff return-yard average in each of the past five seasons. He didn’t play special teams during his collegiate career at California. But after unsuccessful stints with Carolina and Baltimore, the undrafted college free agent knew it was the only way to get a foothold in the NFL.
He was a defensive lineman at the time and weighed almost 300 pounds. Smith gradually broke him in after he joined the Redskins in 2007, starting him off as a member of the wedge that blocks for the kickoff returner.
“He couldn’t walk and chew gum, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “It’s something that he’d never done. He’s an easy guy to coach because you don’t ever have to tell him twice. He’s a tireless worker, and he loves to play the game. There are a few guys in these programs that say, ‘I’ll do anything to get on the field.’ He’s one of them.”
As Alexander’s position on defense - and offense - changed, so did his role on special teams.
Coach Joe Gibbs used him as a lineman on both sides of the ball in 2007. Under coach Jim Zorn, Alexander played defensive end.
When coach Mike Shanahan installed the 3-4 scheme last season, Alexander moved to outside linebacker.
The position changes have required weight loss, and the resulting speed increase has carried over to special teams. He became a key member of the punt coverage unit, and then kickoff coverage. He’s now around 265 pounds, a missile that few players want to get in front of to block.
“Speed on special teams is a factor, but big speed, especially,” Smith said. “That’s why he’s special. He’s a matchup nightmare for a lot of people because of his size, speed, attention to detail and technique.”
And technique is such a big part of it. There’s so much more to covering kicks than just sprinting 50 yards and slamming into a blocker.
“Special teams happens so fast that you’ve got to be able to close distances and play with good pad level,” Alexander said. “When you’re a big guy you think you can just run over anybody. So between being smart and playing my leverage and understanding where everybody else fits, it has really helped.”
That understanding comes from watching film. Where fans might see 11 guys chasing the guy with the ball, Alexander sees a blocking scheme that can be conquered.
Want to get technical about kickoff coverage? Alexander is more than willing.
“You’ve got to understand who’s blocking you,” he said. “If the guard is blocking you, it’s going to be a middle return. If the tackle comes across my face, I know the ball is going away, so then I’ve got to squeeze a lot more. If I know it’s a bloop kick, I’m squeezing right now to the ball.”
So it’s no coincidence that he led the Redskins last season with 20 special teams tackles, 13 of which were solo.
“He’ll not only beat you with his physical skills, but he’ll outprepare you as well,” Smith said. “When you get that combination, you’re special.”