- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

Ryan Clark says there are two requirements to play special teams.

“Just run and hit,” he said. “That’s pretty much all special teams is. In college, they told us you don’t have to be smart to play special teams. You just have to play hard.”

Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith said Clark’s philosophy is semi-correct.

“The basis of it is you do have to run and hit,” he said. “[But] there are some obstacles along that way, and there is technique on how to get there. All in all, there is a lot more to it than that.”

The running and hitting parts are up to the players. The technique and strategy parts fall to Smith.

And following a 2004 season that was underwhelming in terms of big plays, Smith and the Redskins focused on adding speed to the return and coverage teams.

Last year, the Redskins ranked 12th in kickoff returns, 20th in punt returns, 13th in kickoff coverage and 26th in punt coverage.

The early returns are promising. In their loss to Cincinnati on Friday, the Redskins had kickoff returns of 22, 23, 24 and 25 yards and punt returns of 14, 17, 12 and 16 yards.

“We’re running well,” Smith said yesterday at Redskin Park. “We have a long way to go, and we’re headed in the right direction, but we’re far from arriving.”

Last year the Redskins’ special teams never really arrived, with only one touchdown (on a blocked punt) and two touchdowns allowed, but Smith saw a group he said ranked second in blocked kicks and third in tackles inside the 20-yard line.

“We weren’t where we needed to be, but we weren’t awful, either,” he said. “For the first year with new players and a new system, it was a solid year.”

But the “wow” plays were lacking. Speedy return man Antonio Brown has replaced Chad Morton, starters Sean Taylor, Marcus Washington and Shawn Springs add speed to the units and youngsters Zak Keasey, Jonathan Combs and Chris Clemons are trying to make their names on special teams.

“Talent-wise, I think we’re a step up from last year, but we still have to go out there and play,” said receiver James Thrash, who plays on both coverage and return teams.

To take a legitimate step up, the Redskins have to win the field position game. They were 7-6-3 in that department last year. Smith said the Redskins’ average starting point was 29.9; 31.1 was the league leader.

The Redskins’ average starting position against the Bengals was the 35-yard line.

“It’s a game of field position,” Smith said. “You work so hard as an offense to get a long drive and on defense to prevent a long drive. Our job on special teams is to set them up with field position. Hopefully with our speed, we’ll give the offense field position and they can put more points on the board.

“[The 29.9 average] put us in the top 11. Is that good enough? No. We want to be better. During practice, that’s why I’m yelling, ‘31, 31, 31,’ because that’s what led the league last year.”

In his 11th NFL season and fifth as a special teams coach, Smith does plenty of yelling during the special teams portion of practice and his energy is seemingly limitless.

“He’s wired beyond belief,” coach Joe Gibbs said. “I love his enthusiasm. And he’s one of the best I’ve seen as far as dissecting plays and practicing every part of a play and putting it together.”

Smith looks at each special teams a minimum of 11 times so he can evaluate each player. On Saturday that meant looking at the Redskins’ 26 special teams plays — field goals, extra points, kickoffs and punts — for hours.

“I’m not trying to impress anyone by saying how long it takes because that’s what every special teams coach does,” he said. “It’s the only way I know how. And with a cut coming up, you have to make a good evaluation, and special teams is a big factor.”

The Redskins have to cut their roster down by next Tuesday, so Smith has Friday’s game against Pittsburgh to watch bubble players and determine which backup linebacker and which reserve receivers can contribute on special teams.

When the Redskins open the season Sept. 11 against Chicago, Smith knows the margin for error disappears.

“It’s a one-play series,” he said. “We don’t get a second down and a third down to make up for a mistake. We have one play, and it has to be perfect and right, and that’s what we’re striving for.”

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