When it comes to special teams, the 2011 campaign seemed to feature more ups than downs, but struggles in the kicking game proved most frustrating for coach Mike Shanahan & Co.
One of the bright spots was punter Sav Rocca, who consistently boomed punts and pinned 28 inside the 20 yard line. At one point during the season, Shanahan joked that the punter was probably his team’s MVP.
The Redskins also did well on kickoff coverage, holding their opponents to just 20.8 yards per runback (second best in the NFL).
But questions remain about the field goal and kick return units. Here are three that the Redskins aim to sort out this preseason.
1.) Who wins the kicking battle?
Graham Gano returns for his third full NFL season, and this offseason the team signed 12-year veteran Neil Rackers to compete for the kicking duties. Leg strength has never been a question for Gano, but accuracy is. In the last two years, the Florida State product has missed a combined 21 field goal attempts. Last season he went 31-for-41, but five of those misses were blocks, many as a result of missed blocking assignments. an extra point attempt was blocked as well.
Gano cracked two bones in his back during the season finale at Philadelphia, but after three months of rehab is fully healed.
Over his career, Rackers has been one of the most accurate kickers in the league, but is 35 and doesn’t boast the leg strength of Gano, who last season drilled a 59-yard field goal. Shanahan said, however, that Gano must improve his accuracy. The kicker remains confident that he will do just that and beat out Rackers to retain his job.
2.) Can the protection breakdowns be avoided this year?
Shanahan called the breakdowns along the line embarrassing, saying that he never had been associated with a team that had suffered two blocked field goal attempts in a single year. Injuries to linemen triggered the struggles, which persisted throughout the year as special teams coach Danny Smith tried in vain to find reliable replacements. The Redskins aim to be better prepared this season by making sure more players – both offensive and defensive linemen -- take snaps on the line during training camp and the preseason.
3.) Will Brandon Banks remain the returns ace?
For the last two years, speedy wide receiver Brandon Banks has secured his roster spot with strong preseason performances in the kick and punt return game. But a balky knee prevented the team from using him much on offense. This offseason, however, Shanahan has said that Banks must contribute both on offense and special teams to have a shot at making the 53-man roster.
Banks wants to do just that, but will face stiff competition. The team has added talented wide receivers through free agency, and has seen improvement during the offseason from second-year man Aldrick Robinson, whom Shanahan described as a promising slot receiver and return man. In each of the last two seasons, Banks has ripped off big returns just when his chances appeared to be fading. Can he produce similar job-saving fireworks this season?