Shanahan defends Keith Burns, says special teams leader must emerge

October 14, 2013
Keith Burns
Keith Burns’s special teams units have struggled, but Mike Shanahan came to his defense Monday. (John McDonnell, The Washington Post)

Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday he remains confident in the Washington Redskins’ first-year special teams coach, Keith Burns. But the Redskins need a special teams leader or two to emerge from among their players, Shanahan said.

“Lorenzo Alexander is not gonna show up,” Shanahan said Monday afternoon at Redskins Park, referring to the Redskins’ former special teams standout. “So somebody has got to take control of those special teams. And one guy has got to define himself or two guys have got to define themselves. It’s us working as a group. And it just takes one guy [making a mistake] to look pretty average.”

Shanahan’s comments came a day after Sunday night’s loss at Dallas in which the Redskins permitted Cowboys return man Dwayne Harris to score a touchdown on an 86-yard punt return and set up another touchdown with a 90-yard kickoff return. The 31-16 defeat dropped the Redskins’ record to 1-4.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of different things,” Shanahan said. “When you play as a unit — if it’s offense, defense or special teams — to have success, everybody’s got to do their job. If one guy is a little bit off, you look pretty average. And even on that one punt return, we had a penalty that brought it back. We had them inside the 15[-yard line]. And the second one, that’s when [Bryan] Kehl’s knee actually collapses when he’s making a cut right there with the ball carrier. But as I said before, you’ve got to play well as a unit and if you’re a little bit off either way, you can look pretty average very quickly.”

The Redskins had to re-punt because of an illegal-motion penalty before Harris’s touchdown. And Kehl, a reserve linebacker, might have been in position to make a tackle on the play but he fell to the turf without being hit when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Shanahan said Monday that Kehl had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

Shanahan also said another Redskins player, Niles Paul, was blocked illegally on the play without a penalty being called, although replays seemed to show it was relatively light contact.

“He got pushed in the back, yeah,” Shanahan said. “He got pushed in the back.”

The Redskins’ special-teams units have struggled mightily this season without Alexander, a Pro Bowl selection last season on special teams who signed with the Arizona Cardinals in the offseason as a free agent, and former coach Danny Smith, who left to become the special teams coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shanahan hired Burns to replace Smith.

“I think Keith Burns is a very, very excellent football coach, very capable,” Shanahan said Monday. “And like I said, to get at this level and to be in charge of something, it takes a lot of years of work to be put in this position. And I feel very confident that he’ll get the job done even though he’s started out a little bit rough.”

Even so, Shanahan suggested that he might spend more time personally with the special teams units this week.

“Any phase that’s struggling, you always spend more time in that phase,” Shanahan said.

The Redskins believed going into the season that Paul or veteran safety Reed Doughty would emerge as the leader to replace Alexander on special teams. But Shanahan said Monday that no leader has emerged to this point.

“That’s what you’re always looking for, that guy to separate themselves in one area if it’s offense, defense or special teams,” Shanahan said. “When you’re voted captain, you kind of want to separate yourself from the rest of the pack. That’s why we vote for our captain at the midway point [of the season], to see who kind of separates himself on special teams. We’re still looking for that guy. We’ve got a lot of guys in different positions, some new players. They’re getting used to different techniques and hopefully we can put it together this weekend.”

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesday.

More on the Redskins and NFL:

Red-zone struggles baffle offense | Kehl and Sundberg out for the year

Mike Jones’s five observations from Redskins-Cowboys | Ask a question for mailbag

The Outsider: A closer look at Redskins’ offense, defense vs. Dallas

Griffin says ‘no quit’ | Opening Kick: At 1-4, where does the season go from here?

Griffin happy to shed knee brace in pre-game | Special teams emphasis this week

D.C. Sports Bog: Costas explains his franchise-name comments | More Bog

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Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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Mike Jones · October 14, 2013