Led by Rock Cartwright, the Washington Redskins finished fourth in the NFL last year on kickoff returns, averaging 25.1 yards an attempt.
But the new league rule limiting the wedge to two blockers has created a transition for every team. The Redskins averaged 21.8 yards on their five attempts by kickoff returners last week at Baltimore. Chris Wilson fell on a squib kickoff to lower the Redskins’ average to 18.2 yards.
“We actually did a good job setting it,” special teams coach Danny Smith said. “We didn’t get the movement. I think you’ll see an improvement [Saturday against Pittsburgh].”
On Cartwright’s first return against the Ravens, the Redskins had two two-man wedges - Rob Jackson and Todd Yoder were trailed by Lorenzo Alexander and Mike Sellers.
“You need to get movement and get a crease,” Smith said. “We had good contact and were on people, but it was a stalemate and there wasn’t anywhere for the returner to go.”
Keith Eloi (23-yard average) and Dominique Dorsey (21.0) handled the returns after Cartwright’s two returns totaled 39 yards.
The Redskins were a four-man wedge team last year, but Smith basically has kept the same personnel. He also pored over video from other NFL games to see how his colleagues were adjusting their strategies.
“There is a variety of ways guys are doing it,” he said. “There were a couple of three-man wedge sets they didn’t call, but it was a typical thing - a two-man wedge and the other returner takes the back side. If the league was going to be real sticklers, they would have called that.”
No illegal wedge penalties were called in the 16 games last week, but no touchdowns were scored either. The league averaged 21.8 yards on kickoff returns, down only slightly from last year’s 22.8-yard regular season average.
While it may be tough for long kickoff returns early in the season, coach Jim Zorn said the opposite also could happen.
“There may be more because guys could be out of position,” he said. “I think it’s all experimental now. Every special teams coach is wondering what everybody else is doing because it’s so different and it’s so new. Whatever your history was, it’s changed in 2009.”
Cooley, Daniels sit
Tight end Chris Cooley (lower back) and defensive end Phillip Daniels (left knee) sat out Wednesday’s only full-squad practice, but both expect to play Saturday.
For Cooley, it was only his second missed practice since entering the NFL in 2004.
“It was a little sore this morning - I couldn’t put my socks on,” he said. “It just has to calm down. It’s no biggie.”
Daniels’ knee was drained of fluid after the swelling didn’t disappear. He tore his ACL in the same knee last year.
“It’s not a setback,” he said. “I practiced with it swollen for a couple days. We just wanted to take the precaution and limit me today to get it back where I need it to be.”
Running back Anthony Alridge (toe) and right tackle Mike Williams (ankle) sat out, and offensive tackle Devin Clark (knee) was injured during practice. Alridge is out for Saturday, and Williams is questionable.
Ready for more
Safety Reed Doughty made one tackle and broke up one pass last week at Baltimore, his first game since October because of a back injury that required surgery.
“I felt like I played solid and under control,” he said. “I wasn’t too out of sorts. I didn’t give up any deep balls and played OK. I had a solid game, but now I want to produce more.”
Doing more could involve blitzing. After practice Tuesday, Doughty and safeties coach Steve Jackson worked for 20 minutes on technique.
“I’ve blitzed in the past, and it’s something that if I’m not going to be on the field for every down, I have to make plays when I’m out there,” Doughty said. “It’s something I want to be able to do.”
Defensive coordinator Greg Blache called the mistakes made by his players last week “a blessing in disguise.”
In the 23-0 loss, the Redskins allowed 500 yards and were on the field for 80 plays.
“It’s one thing to have to talk about it [in practice]; it’s another thing to do it front of 80,000 people,” he said. “It makes a heckuva more impression than the coach saying things over and over again. It helps create learning situations for the guys. You like to put guys in stressful situations in the preseason and even though you don’t want to ever lose, you’d rather have it go bad today than against the New York Giants in September.”