This is what progress looks like for the Washington Redskins’ beleaguered special teams unit: An 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Devin Hester; needing a penalty to nullify the Chicago Bears’ successful onside kick; and a desperate across-the-field throw during a return by Hester that caused more worry than such a thing should.
“It’s a step,” said Niles Paul, a tight end who’s a regular on Washington’s special teams. “It’s a step for our unit.”
A week after first-year special teams coordinator Keith Burns’s group shouldered most of the blame for a 15-point loss at Dallas, it again looked disorganized during Sunday’s 45-41 win against the Bears at FedEx Field. Washington won in spite of its continued special teams mistakes, and regardless of its baby steps, it remains an area of concern.
In the loss to the Cowboys, Washington allowed two long kick returns, including an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown — a play made worse when Burns was penalized for being in an official’s way on the sideline.
Burns therefore became the face of the team’s problems, and Coach Mike Shanahan turned down reporters’ requests to interview Burns last week, saying he preferred for Burns to focus on his job.
That was one of several steps the team took to improve a wounded unit. Shanahan opted Sunday to make veteran tight end Fred Davis inactive against the Bears, opting to fill the roster spot with Trenton Robinson, a special teams safety.
Players also took a more vocal approach the previous week, with Paul and Reed Doughty taking on more responsibility within the locker room. A meeting of special teams players was planned Friday night, and Paul indicated Sunday that poor effort was the reason for the group’s mistakes.
With the changes, Paul said, players hoped to ease pressure on Burns but admitted that Hester’s kick return overshadowed the good things.
“We wouldn’t consider him a scapegoat,” Paul said of Burns after Sunday’s win. “I think that was all on us and our effort. Clearly you saw today, we all gave effort and we made some plays. . . . We all trust in Keith; we all believe in Keith. He’s a great coach.”
Paul added that the focus last week was on Hester, who has 19 career touchdowns on returns. Chicago moves Hester around to keep teams off guard, but Paul said Washington wasn’t surprised Sunday. Place kicker Kai Forbath kicked away from Hester, and Shanahan said punter Sav Rocca’s responsibility was pinning Hester near the sideline with high kicks.
Players on the coverage team played harder than they had against Dallas, Shanahan said.
“The guys had an excellent sense of urgency,” the coach said, “and gave you a chance to do some good things.”
In the second quarter Sunday, Hester nonetheless fielded a punt near the sideline, crossed the field and away he went. Washington’s coverage team couldn’t shake Chicago’s blocks, and several players overpursued the speedy veteran. It took only 13 seconds for Hester to reach the end zone for the 19th time — tying an NFL record and ruining Washington’s special teams’ day.
“He’s going to make some plays,” Shanahan said. “It just shows you what type of ability a guy like that has because we worked pretty hard and our coverages were pretty good, except for that one play.”
Chicago attempted a surprise onside kick trailing 38-34 with 8 minutes 44 seconds left in the game, recovering the ball before officials threw a flag for a player being offside. Washington was granted possession, a relief for the return team and preventing another blunder for Burns’s unit.
Needing one more big return after Washington’s go-ahead touchdown drive, Chicago’s Joe Anderson fielded a kickoff with 45 seconds to play. He tossed the ball to Hester, who again headed toward a sideline before stopping and flinging a sidearm lateral back to Robinson across the field, where he was tackled at the Chicago 38-yard line.
Paul said the kick coverage team was ready for the surprise, another sign of improvement — modest as it might’ve been.
“We worked so hard all week,” Paul said. “We wanted to go out here and do this for Keith because we know he was taking a lot of heat. Our whole unit was taking a lot of heat.
“We just wanted to go out there and make plays, which we did. We made a lot of big plays, but we gave up big plays, which we can’t let happen.”
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