- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brandon Banks sat at his locker and shook his head, thinking about the difference between this season and last year’s breakout campaign, when he emerged as the Washington Redskins‘ threat-to-break-a-long-one returner.

“It’s like I’m a marked man, now,” Banks said after Tuesday’s practice at Redskins Park. “They’re game-planning for me, directional kicking, making me fair catch … everything.”

That’s life for the NFL’s premier return men, who can swing momentum quicker than it takes to dash 100-plus yards with a kickoff, or squirm through a seam in punt coverage and maneuver their way to the end zone. Though we’ve seen the likes of Chicago’s Devin Hester, New Orleans’ Darren Sproles and San Francisco’s Ted Ginn reach pay dirt this season, Banks hasn’t enjoyed much success through the Redskins‘ first four games.

“I feel like I’m letting the team down,” he said. “I’ve got to do better.”

Like any home run hitter, Banks is going to have his share of strikeouts. But it’s not a one-on-one matchup like a pitcher versus a slugger. The return game is a group activity, your 11 versus their 11, and the guy with the ball never succeeds on his own.

It just looks like he does.

Banks turned in electrifying returns in the preseason finale - cementing his roster spot if it was in doubt - and helped win field-position battles in the opening victories against the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals. But his statistics have declined in each of the past two games, averaging 20.0 and 17.5 yards per kickoff return against Dallas and St. Louis, respectively, and 8.0 and 0.8 yards per punt return.

“There’s nothing specific, nothing special,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “It’s nothing he’s done or hasn’t done. We expect so much of him every week and people plan for him. Our job is to get him free and hopefully it will pick up. When we look at film, we’re real close.

“He’s still averaging over 10 yards per punt return. Devin Hester is the best in the business, and he averages (12.6) for his career.”

Our expectations sort of cloud our perception, making it easier to discount his actual gains in our thirst for big gains. Among punt returners with at least seven returns, Banks’ average of 10.4 yards is tied for ninth in the league. Among kickoff returners with at least seven returns, Banks’ average of 22.2 yards ties him for 16th, though he leads the league in returns of 20-plus yards (10).

“I think what everybody sees is when Brandon touches the ball, he has a chance to go the distance,” coach Mike Shanahan said. “We’ve had some teams that are pretty fired up knowing that if there’s a lull, he can go the distance on both punt returns and kickoff returns. I’ve noticed a sense of urgency with the teams that are playing us - not that we don’t have it - but it only takes one guy on those coverage teams to slow you down.

“We’ll keep working to get better. We have to get better on the returns for sure.”

The Redskins have made out OK despite a lack of highlight returns, because the offense has been surprisingly methodical on the occasions when it produces touchdowns. Defenses like to force opponents to march the length of the field, and while Washington has sputtered in the red zone more than half the time - managing eight TDs on 17 trips - the Redskins have proved capable of constructing long drives.

They covered at least 73 yards on five of their eight TD drives this season, making long returns by Banks more of a luxury than a necessity. Not that better field position wouldn’t be appreciated. The Redskins‘ average starting point in Weeks 1 and 2 was the 30- and 34-yard lines, respectively, compared to the 27- and 28-yard lines in the following two weeks.

Special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said the Redskins have failed to capitalize on their chances to break Banks loose.

“We’ve had some opportunities,” he said. “But it’s not always 11 men working together. It’s one man missing a block here or there. We have to do a better job of creating space for him because he’s a great space player. We’re just trying to get him clean. Once he gets that edge, nobody’s catching him.”

We’re all waiting for that sight.

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