The Washington Redskins knew entering the season that there would be a transition period for their special teams this year. They’d allowed special teams coach Danny Smith to leave for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the offseason. They’d lost linebacker Lorenzo Alexander , a Pro Bowl selection on special teams last season, to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency.
But they crossed their fingers that the transition would go smoothly under first-year special teams coach Keith Burns. They hoped that players such as tight end Niles Paul, safety Reed Doughty and linebacker Bryan Kehl would help fill the void left by the exit of Alexander, their former special teams captain.
So far it has not worked out. The Redskins have struggled mightily on special teams in their first five games under Burns, culminating with the ugly performance during Sunday night’s loss at Dallas in which Cowboys return man Dwayne Harris scored a touchdown on an 86-yard punt return and set up another touchdown with a 90-yard kickoff return.
“Special teams definitely lost the game today for us,” Kehl said late Sunday night in Arlington, Tex. “We’ve just got to play better. It [stinks].”
The Redskins face the Chicago Bears and Devin Hester, who holds the NFL record with 17 career touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns, this weekend.
Kehl won’t be part of this season’s solution, if there is to be one, for the Redskins’ special teams woes. He suffered a season-ending knee injury during Harris’s punt-return touchdown Sunday night. Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday that Kehl had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
Kehl collapsed to the turf without being hit by a Cowboys player just as he neared Harris to try to make a tackle. That’s the sort of misfortune, combined with poor play, from which the Redskins have suffered on special teams. The Redskins believed that Paul was blocked illegally in the back on Harris’s punt return. Replays showed that it was relatively light contact but that the Redskins indeed, with better luck, might have gotten a flag thrown for a penalty that would have negated the touchdown.
“He got pushed in the back,” Shanahan said Monday.
In addition, the touchdown came after the Redskins were forced to re-punt because of an illegal-motion penalty.
“We had a penalty that brought it back,” Shanahan said. “We had them inside the 15[-yard line]. And the second one, that’s when 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.”
Looking average probably would be a significant step up for the Redskins at this point. The punt- and kickoff-coverage failures in Dallas came two weeks after the Redskins, in their previous game, surrendered a touchdown on a blocked punt and allowed the Raiders to get a first down on a fake punt during a victory in Oakland.
“The guys up front, they do a great job of blocking for me,” Harris said when asked by reporters about his kickoff return. “You know, they opened up a hole anybody could run through. [Backup quarterback] Kyle Orton came and told me he could have ran through it. So I said, ‘All right, so I definitely could have ran through it.’ ”
The Redskins’ special teams issues have been widespread this season. Rookie running back Chris Thompson was given the team’s punt-returning job after cornerback Richard Crawford suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason, earning his opportunity with a touchdown on a punt return in the exhibition-season finale. But Thompson is averaging only 5.1 yards per punt return and 20 yards per kickoff return and was relegated to the inactive list in Dallas.
Place kicker Kai Forbath was sidelined for three games because of a groin injury and is only 3 for 5 on field goal attempts this season after going 17 for 18 last season. And now the injuries are beginning to pile up. Long snapper Nick Sundberg also suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday.
Tuesday, the Redskins signed ex-Rams special teamer Josh Hull and long snapper Kyle Nelson. They also signed safety Trenton Robinson.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” Kehl said Sunday. “We just need guys to just step up and really take pride and ownership. I don’t know what everybody else’s mind-set is. But I’ve been in the league for six years and I’ve never been a starter [on defense]. I take pride in just being a special teams player and if I step out there, I’m gonna do my best. That’s my mind-set. But as a team, we’re not playing very well in that phase of the game. We haven’t all year.”
Shanahan hired Burns, who had played and coached for him in Denver, to replace Smith. Shanahan acknowledged Monday that Burns has “started out a little bit rough,” but also called Burns a “very excellent football coach” who is “very capable.” Even so, Shanahan acknowledged that he might devote more of his own time this week to the special teams.
“Any phase that’s struggling, you always spend more time in that phase,” Shanahan said Monday.
The bigger issue in Shanahan’s view, it appears, is the failure of a player or two to emerge thus far as a replacement for Alexander. Shanahan said Monday that “Lorenzo Alexander is not gonna show up,” and added that new leaders must emerge on special teams.
“We’re still looking for that guy,” Shanahan said. “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.”