It is not a good sign when questions are asked about special teams after an NFL game.
That unit is expected to act like clockwork. Hit field goals and extra-point attempts, don't turn the ball over, provide the occasional big play and make sure the opponent doesn't.
It's a pretty simple formula, but so far the Washington Redskins have struggled to execute it. Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders was a disaster. Sav Rocca had a punt blocked early in the first quarter and the Raiders recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. In the second quarter, a Raiders fake punt deep in Oakland territory turned a fourth-and-1 at the 28 into a first down.
"We've got to improve on our technique, but I like the effort that we do have," Washington coach Mike Shanahan said. "We just have got to clean things up a little bit and we've got to improve, there's no question about it."
Part of the problem, according to Shanahan, is a collective lack of experience. The Redskins chose not to re-sign special teams ace Lorenzo Alexander last offseason. He went to the Arizona Cardinals before suffering a season-ending injury on Sept. 22. Veteran safety Reed Doughty leads Washington in special teams plays this season with 99.
Others seeing lots of special-teams snaps include new additions like Darryl Tapp (72), E.J. Biggers (60) and Jordan Pugh (44). Jerome Murphy was a late signing off waivers last November and played on special teams the rest of 2012, but he's taken part in 86 snaps this year. That's tied for second on the team with holdovers Niles Paul and Bryan Kehl.
Rookies David Amerson (36) and Bacarri Rambo (34) have seen time on that unit, too, though Rambo didn't take any snaps there in Week 1 or Week 4. Rookie Brandon Jenkins played 32 special teams snaps in the first three games, but sat out vs. Oakland with an ankle injury.
The issue isn't just youth because some of these players have spent time on special teams before with other teams. But Shanahan admitted this week that some are adapting to new roles. The Redskins have tried a new left wing on the punt team three weeks in a row.
On Sunday, the Raiders used a simple stunt to confuse Washington's line and blow past Perry Riley. Rocca had no chance on the punt block by Rashard Jennings and Oakland recovered the ball for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, the punt return game has been a work in progress since Richard Crawford went out with torn knee ligaments in the third preseason game. Rookie Chris Thompson is still back there on punts, but he also continues adjusting to a role he last played in high school.
That was obvious enough on one punt when Thompson reached high above his head to pull down the ball and almost had it skip off his hands and into the end zone. He also let two punts hit the ground and returned two others for just 11 yards. Shanahan still praised Thompson's decision-making on a windy day in Oakland, but the results haven't been there yet.
"You deal with the rough spots with young returners," Redskins special teams coach Keith Burns said. "I'm willing to live with it as long as [Thompson is] making good decisions back there. It's just for me to get the guys going to block for him up front. [For] any new returner every experience is a new experience, whether it's good or bad. We just want more good than bad."
Burns himself is new, replacing the departed Danny Smith, who had been with Washington since 2004. He took a job with the Pittsburgh Steelers after last season. Burns came to Washington from Denver, where he'd been the special teams coach since 2007 and had also played 10 seasons for Shanahan.
Clearly there has been an adjustment process for the players there, too. Burns said his players were aware of the Raiders' propensity to employ fake punts and that he wasn't surprised when it happened. The execution, according to Shanahan, was missing on that play. But Burns wouldn't use it being his first season with the team as an excuse for those mistakes and miscommunications.
"I think we're over that hump as far as them learning me," Burns said. "We had all OTAs and all training camp to do that."
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