Although they surrendered a punt return for a touchdown for a second consecutive week, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and assistant Keith Burns both adamantly declared the their special teams units displayed improvement on Sunday.
“I think we improved drastically, even though it didn’t sound like it because of the punt returned for a touchdown,” Shanahan said Monday afternoon. “But if you watched our kickoff coverage, I thought Robinson really helped us, and Hull came in and did a great job.”
The Redskins last week signed two free agents, safety Trenton Robinson and linebacker Josh Hull, to use primarily on their kickoff and punt return and coverage units. Robinson made a tackle to prevent a potential breakaway kickoff return in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Robinson had another special teams tackle as well, and Hull had a tackle and an assist on special teams.
Shanahan added, “You could see the sense of urgency on our football team. If you watched every special teams play, you saw a team that played extremely hard. Not that we can’t get better. We’re going against Denver this week that’s great in kickoff return and punt return and they rank third and fourth in the National Football League and usually they don’t go hand in hand, so they have a dual threat. We’ve got to be at our best this week as well.”
Devin Hester’s 81-yard punt return for a touchdown marked the second surrendered in as many weeks by the Redskins. It also became the third special teams touchdown allowed by Washington this season (the first coming off of a blocked punt at Oakland). Last week Washington gave up an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown to Dallas’s Dwayne Harris.
Shanahan said that the Redskins’ plan on that 81-yard return had called for Sav Rocca to punt the ball out of bounds. Hester fielded the ball near the right sideline at the 19-yard line, but several yards inbounds. He took off, and the Redskins didn’t maintain outside containment and Hester sprinted up the sideline shielded by a wall of Bears players.
Sunday marked yet another trying day for the Redskins and Burns, who is in his first season as Washington’s special teams coordinator. He played for Shanahan in Denver and then had served as assistant special teams coach for the Broncos since 2007 when Shanahan gave him his start in the coaching field.
Burns believes that despite the touchdown, his his unit “took steps in the right direction” against Chicago. Asked what made him feel that way, he said, “I just see small breakdowns. It’s a play here, a play there. Any time you’re playing against a returner such as the one we played against [Sunday], he’s dangerous regardless of where he gets the ball and you try to keep the ball out of his hands at certain times. But sometimes, you have to put the ball in his hands one of those times and he ended up hitting us for an 81-yard touchdown, but at the same time, it wasn’t for a lack of effort that the guys gave. We’ve just got to be in position to get him on the ground. But at the same time, I think the guys were working hard. We just have to continue to do that.”
Last week, several members of the Redskins special teams units questioned whether Burns had fully gained the trust of his players. Burns acknowledged that it takes a while for players accustomed to another coach for a number of years to make a transition. But he expressed confidence in his knowledge and philosophies.
“I understand from a players perspective, because when you’re so used to being in one system for so many years, that’s part of it,” Burns said. “But what I bring to the table, I’ve played in five special teams systems and coached in three different special teams systems, so I’ve always taken a little part from each – the ones I played in and the ones I coached in – and I’m bringing it to Washington. It’s always going to take time, but I’ve got to get the guys playing hard, and I think I started that, just like they showed yesterday.”
Burns said he doesn’t believe players hadn’t bought into his system, and he disagreed with the notion that they lack the passion to play on special teams. Instead, the unit remains in the learning stages. But the effort improved this past week, the coach says, and he predicts more strides as the season progresses.
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● Shanahan on his return to Denver, and Mike Jones’s mailbag.
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