Redskins’ special teams: Good kick coverage, shaky on field goals


Place kicker Graham Gano (4) has played well toward the end of the season for the Redskins. Punter Sav Rocca (6) has been the team’s most valuable offensive player, according to Coach Mike Shanahan. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
December 29, 2011

It’s never a good barometer of a team’s overall success when the head coach describes the punter as “our best offensive weapon.”

But Washington Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan bestowed that title on Sav Rocca in describing the punter’s play during this 10-loss season.

“He’s exactly what you want,” Shanahan said of Rocca, one of Washington’s best free agent acquisitions of the offseason. “He’s a great punter. He’s cool, calm and collected when he’s holding for the extra points. He’s had more punts inside the 20-yard line than [almost] anybody else in the NFL. So it doesn’t get much better than that. The bad thing is he’s probably our best offensive weapon, and that’s not good.”

Shanahan chuckled as he offered the final sentence, but in reality, Rocca has been one of the team’s few bright spots this season.

The Redskins’ special teams units have provided some moments of angst and frustration. But without Rocca’s cannon of a leg, a strong punt coverage unit and an equally effective kickoff coverage unit, Shanahan & Co. could have found themselves in more unfavorable situations during this five-win campaign.

Stability at punter

In the 2009 and 2010 seasons, the Redskins changed punters six times: Glenn Pakulak, Sam Paulescu, Hunter Smith, Josh Bidwell, Smith again and Paulescu again.

The team signed Rocca to a two-year deal during training camp, and now, after shanks, short punts and punts with no hang time, the Redskins have a punter who nets 40 yards per game — a career high.

Rocca also has dropped 26 punts inside the 20, which ties for second in the NFC. He has only one touchback.

“He’s having his best year,” special times coach Danny Smith said. “We adjusted a couple of things with him when we got him that he took to . . . that has helped his game as well. He’s been really good. And you talk about a young long snapper and young kicker, he brings stability to that. And he brings stability to me as a coach because you know what you’re getting.”

Rocca also has helped shore up the exchange from long snapper Nick Sundberg to place kicker Graham Gano on field goals. Smith, Sundberg and Gano all call Rocca the best holder they’ve worked with.

The 38-year-old has helped instill confidence in Sundberg and Gano, and he consistently gets holds down and in place.

Last season, Gano was 24 for 35, with one blocked kick. This year he is 30 for 39 with four blocked attempts.

“Last year we had three punters,” Sundberg, a second-year pro, explained. “That means three holders. Graham’s got to get used to three guys holding the ball differently. And Sav comes in and brings stability. He’s consistent. He puts the ball in the same place every time. . . . That in and of itself was key in us making strides.”

Kicking: Good and bad

On punt and kick coverage, the Redskins have excelled at holding opponents in check. Taking advantage of the league’s decision to move up the kickoff five yards, Gano has 31 touchbacks.

On his 34 other kickoffs, the coverage unit — led by Lorenzo Alexander, who has 20 special teams tackles — has held opponents to just 20.8 yards per return, second in the NFL for the second straight year.

“I think Gano’s done a great job on kickoffs — good hang time. We have a lot of guys that take pride in covering kicks and we’ve got some goals and aspirations to finish as one of the top units. And we’re close in those areas,” Shanahan said. “We watch every special teams play as a team to let our players know how important those plays are. They’re usually the difference in winning and losing.”

The two coverage units have not given up a touchdown through 15 games.

But other special teams play has not been so stellar. After going 10 for 10 in the preseason, Gano missed his only field goal attempt in the season opener. Washington gave up a blocked field goal in an 18-16 loss to Dallas and Gano missed two field goals in a 27-24 overtime defeat to the Cowboys.

In all, Gano has had four field goals blocked and has missed another five. Some of the blocks were the result of backups filling in for injured first-teamers along the line.

But Shanahan also put some blame on Gano for launching kicks without enough lift.

The coach put Gano on notice, saying the second-year place kicker needed to perform better, or the team would find someone who could.

In December, the Redskins finally seemed to gain stability along the front as substitute linemen grew accustomed to their roles, and Gano has been perfect, making 13 of 13 attempts.

“Early in the season, our field goal protection wasn’t what it needed to be,” Smith said. “We’ve been able to, thank God, put out the fire with a game remaining.”

The Redskins boast a dynamic return threat in Brandon Banks, but the 5-foot-7, 151-pound speedster has been bottled up for much of this season thanks partly to the new kickoff rule and partly because of teammates’ penalties that have negated some big runbacks. Banks has prevented some returns by fumbling six times.

“Brandon’s done a good job. We’ve taken some chances that maybe we wish we had back in a couples situations,” Smith said of Banks, who leads the league with 54 kickoff returns, but ranks 21st in the NFL with an average of 22 yards per runback. “There have been times where the opportunity’s there, but the punt doesn’t come right, or the opportunity’s there, and he mishandles it. . . . It’s not necessarily always what another team does, but it’s also about what mistakes you make. But he’s a real weapon.”

Redskins note: Shanahan said Thursday he has no doubt he will return to the team next season despite a lack of progress in the won-loss column. Shanahan said he fully expects owner Daniel Snyder to give him more time to turn around the franchise.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” Shanahan said. “Hopefully there’s no doubt in Dan’s mind, too,” he added with a chuckle. “That would be the bigger guy to ask.”

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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