- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2000

The season-opening disaster by the Washington Redskins' kickoff coverage finally can be forgotten.

The maligned unit has redeemed itself after allowing a 92-yard touchdown and called-back 90-yarder to the Carolina Panthers. Last weekend the unit, along with an improved punt coverage team, played a big role as the Redskins won the battle for field position against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, in turn, secured an important 20-17 overtime victory.

"Our coverage teams have come so far since Week 1," Redskins coach Norv Turner said this week. "We needed guys to understand the urgency of playing special teams. Now we're covering punts and kicks as well as we ever have."

Good thing. The units now get one of their biggest and certainly most anticipated challenges of the season Sunday in Philadelphia Eagles returner Brian Mitchell, a 10-year Redskin who was released in June and is motivated to prove something.

"It's business," special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel said. "We have to do our job. Brian's a great returner, and he's on a roll. Philadelphia is playing really well. It's a great challenge. That's what you play for."

Even though the Redskins beat Carolina 20-17, their kickoff coverage was blasted for allowing Pro Bowl returner Michael Bates an average return of 37.8 yards. The unit improved the next week but still let Detroit Lions returner Desmond Howard get a 44-yarder and a 30.5-yard average.

The unit since has enjoyed marked improvement. The Dallas Cowboys had a long return of 27 yards and an average of 22.3. The New York Giants had a long of 24 and an average of 16. And last weekend the Bucs' four chances resulted in a long of 31 yards and an average of 25.3.

"Our kickoff unit finally has a feel for the guys they're playing next to," said defensive back David Terrell, who plays on both coverage teams. "We know our responsibilities, and we're starting to stick to our responsibilities. We're jelling together."

A personnel shift helped. Fullback Mike Sellers returned to the kickoff coverage after missing Week 1 with an injured shoulder. Rookie linebacker LaVar Arrington had played Sellers' key middle lane, and both big returns seemed to go through it. Overall, five of the 10 coverage players in Week 1 were making their NFL debuts.

"A bunch of the guys looked like they were playing their first NFL game that day, and with good reason they were playing their first NFL game that day," Turner said. "David Terrell is getting a game ball [for his performance against Tampa Bay]. He was horrible in the Carolina game."

The efforts of kicker Michael Husted also have helped even though his job isn't necessarily secure. Brett Conway was hampered in Weeks 1 and 2 by a quadriceps strain, and his distance was erratic. Husted, who replaced Conway in Week 3, makes sure any errors come on the high side, at least preventing lengthy runbacks.

"Obviously I don't think I'm as strong as I was when I was a rookie, but I think kickoffs have always been my forte," said Husted, 30. "That's probably one of the reasons I've been around this league [for eight seasons]."

Punter Tommy Barnhardt, 37, has an identical philosophy. His punts aren't always pretty, deep spirals, but they've got plenty of air under them. He has yielded just 37 yards of returns this season, the third-best total in the NFL.

Barnhardt had his best day against the Bucs, booting 10 punts for a gross average of 44 yards. One return came back 11 yards, but the four others totaled just 2 yards. One punt was nearly downed inside the Bucs' 1, but it barely touched the end zone line before being tipped back into play.

"These guys are starting to understand that I'm not going to put them out on an island," Barnhardt said. "We're working in this thing as a unit. We're not working as individual people."

Several Redskins credit Terrell, one of the two wing players on punt coverage. Playing the wing is difficult because the player generally must fight through two defenders at the line before focusing on the punt returner.

"That's one big thing you've got to have good bullets outside," Barnhardt said. "It's the toughest job on the field, because you're going against two guys the majority of the time. He's done a very nice job developing. It's huge, because [fellow wing player] James [Thrash] knows how to work double-teams, and they can't set returns to one side."

Not that Mitchell will be looking to break many returns around the end. The 32-year-old is a gritty north/south returner, and the Redskins know it. Mitchell, of course, also knows the Redskins and their tendencies.

"He's definitely going to be able to give their special teams coach some insight," said Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason, who plays on both coverage units. "He has first-hand experience with all of us."

Mitchell already has returned a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns as an Eagle. He is the NFC's third-ranked kickoff returner, at 30.8 yards with an 89-yard score Sunday against Atlanta, and the conference's fourth-ranked punt returner, at 12.5 yards with a 72-yard touchdown two weeks ago at New Orleans.

"We know that we're facing Brian and that there's a lot of hype," Mason said. "We can't get caught up in that. We just need to focus on stopping Brian, and to think of this as the Redskins versus the Eagles."

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