Redskins continue special teams struggles in loss to Cowboys

October 14, 2013

The Washington Redskins returned from their bye hoping to put the Week 4 special teams struggles behind them. But instead, things only got worse in a 31-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night. The team proved incapable of making stops on kickoff or punt coverage, and a missed field goal, penalties and multiple injuries only expounded the woes of a unit still searching for an identity under first-year coordinator Keith Burns.

“Special teams. That’s what it came down to,” fumed fullback and core special teams contributor Darrel Young said. “Offense and defense did their job. Offense was mediocre. Special teams? It was below poor. It was failure. If I had to give it a grade, it’s an ‘F.’ We didn’t set up the offense, didn’t set up the defense. Failure. It doesn’t matter what happened offense and defense. They would’ve beaten us 7-6 had it not been for special teams. We missed a field goal, not tackling guys on big punt returns. It’s something we talked about on the bye week that needed to be better, and we didn’t go out and execute. . . . We found the enemy tonight. It was us.”

Two weeks after surrendering a blocked punt for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders, the Redskins gave up another touchdown — this time on a punt return. Later in the game, the unit gave up a 90-yard kickoff return that set up the Cowboys with a short field that required only two plays to reach the end zone.

The Redskins had a chance to cut Dallas’s lead to two early in the fourth quarter, but a missed field goal from 49 yards out prevented that.

Meanwhile, the team lost coverage standout Bryan Kehl and long snapper Nick Sundberg to knee injuries and cornerback/gunner David Amerson to a concussion.

The Redskins’ misfortunes all started with a careless penalty in the second quarter.

On fourth and seven from the Washington 40-yard line with just less than three minutes remaining in the half, punter Sav Rocca sent a kick 44 yards to the Dallas 16, where tight end Niles Paul downed the ball. But an illegal motion penalty on gunner Jerome Murphy called the punt back. Backed up another five yards, Rocca booted the ball 51 yards, and Dallas return man Dwayne Harris fielded it at the 14 and took off.

Paul was shoved in the back by Brandon Carr and missed Harris as he began his return, but the officials did not acknowledge it. Harris got two clean blocks further upfield and squirted free to daylight and went untouched the rest of the way. The 86-yard return marked the fifth longest in Cowboys history and the first punt return surrendered for a touchdown this season by the Redskins.

Adding insult to injury was a 15-yard penalty on Burns, who during the return was standing on the white part of the sideline and came into contact with the side judge, who was jogging down the field to follow the play. Those 15 yards were assessed on the ensuing kickoff.

The next special teams gaffe came in the third quarter, when Washington kicked off following a field goal that made the score 14-12 roughly five minutes into the period.

Unthreatened by the Redskins’ coverage unit, Harris took the ball out the end zone from about five yards deep. He received a key block when a teammate laid out Amerson — a hit that left the rookie concussed — and went untouched up the right sideline. Had it not been for cornerback E.J. Biggers running Harris down from behind and dragging him out of bounds, the third-year pro would’ve scored his second touchdown of the game. The Cowboys scored just two plays later, however, as Tony Romo completed a 15-yard strike to rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams.

Harris later ripped off a 23-yard punt return. Sundberg ran him out of bounds but injured his knee.

That led to a less-than-perfect exchange and a missed field goal early in the fourth quarter. Center Will Montgomery came in to snap in place of Sundberg. His snap to Rocca, the holder, sailed a little high. Rocca managed to get the ball down, barely, but Kai Forbath’s kick sailed wide left, and rather than making it a two-point game, the Redskins continued to trail 21-16.

Rocca said the snap wasn’t unmanageably high but said the timing was slightly off because he had only practiced with Montgomery on the sideline after Sundberg got hurt. Forbath, who made a 60 yard attempt in pregame warmups, said he still should have made the kick.

The Redskins’ situation on returns remains unsettled.

Two weeks after saying he was willing to live with the growing pains of rookie return man Chris Thompson, Burns went away from the Florida State product. Wide receiver Josh Morgan took over at punt returner, and Thompson didn’t even dress.

Morgan couldn’t provide any fireworks however. He took one kickoff out of the end zone but got only to the 14, and he averaged just 4.3 yards a punt return on four attempts, leaving the Redskins to work with unfavorable field position much of the game.

Paul said the blame should rest on the shoulders of the blockers ahead of Morgan.

“We had a great plan, had a week off, we were refreshed and we got out there and had a meltdown,” Paul said. “Worst special teams performance I’ve been a part of. I can’t put my finger on it. They were better on us on every phase of special teams. . . . We have to do better. I was just talking to [special teams captain] Reed Doughty. We have to do better. We can’t give up points. We can’t give up big returns. We have to produce better returns. We can’t be this bad on special teams.

Mike Jones covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post. When not writing about a Redskins development of some kind – which is rare – he can be found screaming and cheering at one of his kids’ softball, baseball, soccer or basketball games.
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