Bye-week glance: Redskins’ special teams

November 9, 2012

Statistical glance: Kai Forbath is the 17th-leading scorer among NFC kickers, with eight field goals and eight extra points for 32 points. He has eight touchbacks on kickoffs, putting him 17th in the NFC in that category as well. But he could move up, given his late start to the season after being signed to replace Billy Cundiff. Sav Rocca’s average of 43.7 yards per punt puts him 13th in the NFC; his net punting average of 37.1 yards is 14th in the conference. Brandon Banks ranks 11th in the NFC in punt return average, at 6.2 yards per return. Banks is ninth in the conference in kickoff returns at 24.6 yards per return. The Redskins rank 14th in the NFC in average starting position on kickoff returns, the 20.4-yard line, and are sixth-best in the conference in kickoff coverage, with their opponents’ average start being at the 21.3-yard line.


Kai Forbath (Richard Lipski/Associated Press)

Top highlights: Long snapper Nick Sundberg became a tough-guy cult hero of sorts when he kept snapping in the Redskins’ season-opening triumph at New Orleans despite suffering a broken left arm in the first half. He was placed on the injured reserve list after that game and replaced by Justin Snow. But the Redskins rewarded Sundberg by using the new designated-for-return tag on him, taking advantage of the rule change this year that enables each NFL team to activate one player from the IR list per season. He is slated to re-assume the team’s long-snapping duties after the bye week.

Cundiff didn’t have enough positive moments in his five-game tenure as the Redskins’ kicker to keep the job. But he did connect on a game-winning field goal, a 41-yarder with three seconds left in Tampa to beat the Buccaneers, 24-22, on Sept. 30. Of course, it came only after Cundiff missed three field goal tries earlier in the game from 41, 57 and 31 yards.

Lowlights: After having a league-high five field goal attempts blocked last season, the Redskins’ special teams got off to a rocky start this season by surrendering a blocked punt in each of the first two games. The Saints had a touchdown on a blocked punt in the opener, and the Rams had a blocked punt to set up a touchdown in St. Louis a week later. That put Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith under immediate scrutiny. But Smith accepted his share of the blame publicly, re-emphasized the basics with his players and has gotten the punt-protection problems fixed. They haven’t resurfaced since.

The good: Forbath never had kicked in an NFL regular season game when the Redskins signed him to replace Cundiff. But it hasn’t taken long for him to provide some hope that maybe, just maybe, he can give the Redskins some much-needed stability at the position. He connected on a 50-yarder on his first NFL regular season field goal attempt. And he has remained perfect on field goals since then, going 8 for 8 overall in his first four games. Six of his field goals have been from 43 yards or longer. He has been decent on kickoffs even though he didn’t perform those duties in college at UCLA, and he has vowed to continue to work to improve in that area. The only mishap so far has been a too-low kick on an extra point that was blocked.

Toughness certainly isn’t an issue on special teams. Not only did Sundberg play half of the opening game with a broken arm. Rocca has been punting with a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Lorenzo Alexander, the Redskins’ special teams captain, has had an increased role on the club’s defense in some games lately, and has provided a spark at times with his play at linebacker. He has acknowledged that the more he plays on defense, the more that he and Smith must fine ways to reduce some of his special-teams responsibilities. But Alexander continues to excel on the Redskins’ coverage units, so much so that teammates lobby for him to be a Pro Bowl selection on special teams. Reserve tight end Niles Paul also has delivered some jarring hits on the coverage units.

The bad: The Redskins had a kicking competition during training camp and the preseason between incumbent Graham Gano and veteran Neil Rackers, then got rid of both kickers in favor of Cundiff to open the season. The decision looked good initially when Cundiff made all four of his field goal attempts in the opening win at New Orleans. But he went only 3 for 8 thereafter. His three misses in Tampa probably would have cost him his job if he hadn’t delivered on his game-winning kick. But that, as it turned out, bought Cundiff only one more game, as he was released in favor of Forbath after missing a 31-yard field goal try a week later in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

The two blocked punts in the first two games created a bit of a stir locally, with some fans calling for Smith’s ouster as the special teams coach. But that has quieted down recently, with the focus moving to the team’s problems in other areas.

The Redskins have been unable to make the speedy Banks much of a factor in the return game. He does have a 55-yard kickoff return this season. But his longest punt return is 27 yards and he mostly has been bottled up and left frustrated.

Homestretch needs: The Redskins need Forbath to remain reliable and their coverage units to stay steady and dependable. They certainly could use a boost from Banks with a big play or two in the return game. Banks made the season-opening roster after demonstrating to the coaches that he could contribute on offense as well as special teams, and at times the wide receiver has lined up in the backfield and has been on the receiving and running end of pitches from quarterback Robert Griffin III in the Redskins’ option game. But his calling card in this league should be as a potential game-changing player on returns, and he hasn’t been that lately.

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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