- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ASHBURN — Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly has quit telling speedy running back and punt returner Darren Sproles to slow down in walk-throughs when the rest of the team is going half speed.

There is no such gear for Sproles. The speed he displayed Sunday on an 89-yard punt return touchdown during the Eagles’ 24-17 win against the New York Jets is the only speed he knows.

“What you see on Sundays is what we see every day in our training sessions with him,” Kelly said Wednesday in a conference call.

“Every time he catches a punt [in practice], he scores a touchdown. Then when he goes out on the field, every time it gets blocked up pretty good, he’s going to score a touchdown. There’s a very consistent approach to Darren Sproles. I wish more players would emulate it, because it seems like a pretty good formula that’s working.”

Sproles will bring that formula to FedEx Field on Sunday — the Eagles being the latest test for the Washington Redskins’ coverage units, which have slogged through the start of the season.

In a 32-21 loss to the New York Giants last Thursday, running back Rashad Jennings blocked Tress Way’s punt on the opening possession, resulting in a safety.

In the season opener, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Jarvis Landry returned a punt 69 yards for a touchdown to lift his team to a 17-10 victory.

It wasn’t all bad on special teams against the Giants, as Rashad Ross returned a kickoff for a 101-yard touchdown. The blocked punt was costly, though, setting the tone for a mediocre performance in a prime-time game against a division opponent.

Coach Jay Gruden acknowledged the special teams’ shortcomings, something that needs to improve Sunday against the Eagles.

“We understand the importance,” Gruden said on Wednesday. “We’ve made a big deal about it really the whole offseason. … We made a big deal about special teams and turnovers. So far, it’s gone on deaf ears.”

The Eagles scored seven touchdowns on special teams in 2014 and had the best unit in the NFL, according to The Dallas Morning News. Without easily quantifiable special teams rankings, the publication, which has been keeping data on the unit since 1990, ranks teams in 22 different categories.

Philadelphia finished with 201.5 points in 2014 — 26 better than the second-place Buffalo Bills — and made a vast improvement from their No. 18 ranking in 2013.

Sproles, who returned two punts for touchdowns last season, has been a spark since being acquired from the New Orleans Saints in 2014.

“I showed all the [Eagles’ special teams] touchdowns on film today from last year, and it seemed like it took forever,” Gruden said.

“Sproles is very dynamic. He’s already small in stature, but he’s big as far as making people miss, finding lanes. He’s hard to find sometimes when he’s behind the blockers and he gets a wall and he’s gone.”

The depth of the Redskins’ special teams unit has been greatly tested this season, dating back to the preseason.

In the opener, tight end Niles Paul, who played nearly half of the Redskins’ special teams snaps in 2014, broke his left ankle. The following week, against the Detroit Lions, inside linebacker and special teams captain Adam Hayward tore the ACL in his right knee.

Injuries to the defense have also impacted the special teams unit, as core special contributors have been thrust into starting roles.

Trenton Robinson played 62 percent of special teams snaps in the season opener — during which he was called on to fill in at strong safety after Duke Ihenacho broke his left wrist.

Since then, Robinson has played every defensive snap. He played only 23 percent of special teams snaps in Week 2 and 41 percent in Week 3.

Inside linebacker Will Compton, who played 77 percent of special teams snaps in Week 2, played just 38 last Thursday. He started in place of injured linebacker Perry Riley and played 84 percent of the defensive snaps.

“That’s tough for [special teams coordinator Ben] Kotwica,” Gruden said. “We’re having a different flyer outside every time. We’re having a different punt protector every week. And, those guys need reps like a quarterback needs reps, like an inside linebacker needs reps. We’ve got to try to get these guys up to par, up to speed as quick as we can, because Philadelphia will make you pay.”

Fullback Darrel Young, who embraced a more vocal leadership role once Hayward was injured, is putting the pressure on himself to help the unit solidify.

After seeing the results from last Thursday’s game, he knows the special teams unit needs to be better.

“It’s B.S. because we’re putting our defense in bad situations and the offense not in good situations,” Young said. “As myself, I need to step up and be a leader. Right now, a lot of young guys are out there running around, trying to make plays. We also got to have guys that have been around, like myself, to enforce what we’re trying to accomplish here.”


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