- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

Even in a game that didn’t count, Marcus Washington wanted to play special teams.

During last year’s Pro Bowl, Washington, an outside linebacker for the Redskins, would dash onto the Aloha Stadium field to help the coverage and return teams even though a substitution pattern had been finalized during pregame.

“Guys like [Carolina’s] Dan Morgan were saying, ‘We’ll sub for you. You can stay out and take a rest,’ but I’m so used to it. I was running out there taking guys’ reps,” Washington said. “But special teams has been fun for as long as I can remember.”

Thanks in part to established starters like Washington volunteering for the extra work, the Redskins’ special teams have showed steady improvement during the team’s 5-3 first half.

Just as Joe Gibbs and Gregg Williams work to find a core of players on offense and defense, respectively, the Redskins have acquired players who can fill roles on Danny Smith’s special teams. The result has been the same group of starters — Washington, Lemar Marshall, Sean Taylor, Shawn Springs, etc. — teaming with special teams standouts — Mike Sellers, Rock Cartwright, Khary Campbell, James Thrash, etc. — to steady both the coverage and return units.

An average of six players per return and coverage team have remained intact from last season.

“I think it’s been big for us,” Smith said. “It’s like any business — anytime you work next to the same guy, you get to know him, and that certainly helps in a sense that they know how the other plays.

“A lot of times, when guys start on [special teams], they’re only worried about what’s going on in their mind. But the better you know what the guy next to you is doing and they’re running down the field beside you, you become more effective.”

Entering tomorrow’s game at Tampa Bay, the Redskins’ kickoff (first) and punt (fifth) coverage are among the best in the NFL. But the return teams continue to be a work in progress — the punt return team has improved from 20th to 17th and the kickoff return squad has fallen from 12th last season to 22nd, although Ladell Betts’ 40-yard return last week against Philadelphia set up the winning touchdown.

“When we’re healthy there, we’re making improvement,” Gibbs said. “I feel much better about our guys across the board. There is still a lot of room to improve, but I do kind of feel like we’re getting closer.”

In the 2004 season opener, the last time the Redskins faced Tampa Bay, the Bucs posted kickoff returns of 30, 71, 54 and 21 yards.

Asked whether it was as chaotic as a first-grade fire drill, Cartwright said: “I think at the beginning of the year, yeah, because we were learning each other, but once we started to play together more and guys started to stick around, it got better toward the end of last season, and we’ve improved a lot this year.”

The Redskins have yet to allow a special teams touchdown. Sellers and Cartwright appeared on all four coverage/return teams last week against Philadelphia.

While the coverage teams are humming along, the return teams have been in flux for the last season-and-a-half. Chad Morton started last season as the punt and kick returner, but he sustained a season-ending knee injury. Antonio Brown ended 2004 as the main return man, but his production bottomed out during the preseason this year. He was released after Week 1.

Betts and Thrash have handled the kickoffs, and Thrash has nine punt returns (and 12 fair catches). Santana Moss has five punt returns, but the coaches seem inclined to keep him fresh for offense.

The Redskins want to see a spike in the return game during the season’s second half. Of the offense’s 16 touchdown drives when they acquired possession via special teams, only two have been shorter than 60 yards.

“We know how important field position is,” Thrash said. “Every week, we’re one or two blocks from breaking a big one, and [Betts’ kickoff return last week] was an example of what we can do. And we would like to get some scores if we can.”

The Redskins’ average starting spot this year has been around the 27-yard line, and they only have bettered the 31-yard-line, last season’s league average, one time — in the San Francisco game (the 43).

“That’s the key,” Smith said. “We’ve been around 27, 28, 29 for the game, and we always want to get to the 31.”

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