The special teams misadventures for the Washington Redskins have included long returns by opponents, blocked kicks and an incompletion on a fake punt on which the intended receiver didn’t know the pass was coming.
They also have included some of the league’s least productive return units. The Redskins rank 30th in the NFL in punt return average and 31st in kickoff return average.
Tight end Niles Paul averaged 24.7 yards on three returns during the Redskins’ loss at Minnesota on Nov. 7, an improvement on the team’s overall average of 20.0 yards this season. Paul said he’s hopeful a big return or two could be on the horizon.
“Just from watching the Vikings film, a lot of people were like, ‘Aw, it was only 26, 25 [yards] or whatever our return [was].’ But it’s literally one block away,” Paul said. “You’re one man away. . . . It’s that easy. It’s that quick. It’s that simple. So knowing that and going into this week, I think we’ve built a lot of confidence in. I think we’re due to break one on a punt or kick return.”
Paul seems to have taken over as the Redskins’ top kickoff returner ahead of wide receiver Joshua Morgan. The team’s punt-returning duties could be transferred Sunday from Morgan to rookie wide receiver Nick Williams, who was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster this week when rookie running back Chris Thompson was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list. Thompson took over as the punt returner after cornerback Richard Crawford suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. The Redskins have averaged 6.1 yards per punt return this season.
Coach Mike Shanahan praised Williams’s practice-field performance this week but stopped short Friday of naming him the team’s punt returner for Sunday’s game at Philadelphia.
“Sometimes you’ll have a returner make three or four guys miss,” Shanahan said. “Those guys are usually guys that are leading the NFL in some phase, whether it’s a punt return or a kickoff return. The great special teams usually have a guy that has that type of ability, very similar to what Crawford did for us in the last five games of the season last year.”
Williams, who was signed as an undrafted free agent from Connecticut, said he thinks one significant return could give the Redskins a major boost.
“I think it really only takes like one big play, and then you kind of feed off that momentum for the rest of it,” Williams said. “The return game statistics are so skewed. If you have one return for a touchdown, then all of a sudden you probably jump up 15 [spots] in the league averages. So it really only takes one or two plays to really open things up and then kind of put more pressure on the coverage units.”