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Special Teams Are Working To End Field Goal Problems

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

Ethan Albright, the Washington Redskins' long snapper, doesn't see much in the instant after he snaps the ball on field goals and extra points. He only knows there are arms and legs everywhere, big bodies colliding and strong, large men pushing, pulling and grabbing for leverage.

He also knows the Redskins have to do a better job holding off potential kick blockers as they prepare to face the Kansas City Chiefs and their typically sound and often very special teams Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.

In each of the last two weeks, the Redskins have had field goal attempts blocked. Against Seattle, the Seahawks got a huge push up the middle to swat away a 39-yard attempt, but Washington overcame the breakdown to win the game. On Sunday in Denver, on a 38-yard attempt, rookie kicker Nick Novak said yesterday that it was more stretch than push that led to the block -- the long arms of 6-foot-5 lineman Trevor Pryce reached up and knocked down the ball.

Coupled with Novak's 53-yard field goal nullified at the end of the half when Mike Sellers was called for a false start, the Redskins squandered six points in the kicking game and lost their first game of the season by two points.

"Seems like it's something different every time," Albright said of the two blocks. "Denver had tall guys getting right in the gap. To some degree it was the right spot at the right time. On a wet field, a longer field goal is tough to get the ball up, but you can't fault [Novak]. Sometimes, it's just a gotcha."

Still, the Redskins are working this week to correct further "gotchas." Coach Joe Gibbs said on Monday the protections on the two blocks were "soft" and added that "in terms of personnel, or changing the technique, there are a couple of things you can do there. We shouldn't have any blocked, and we've already had two. So it concerns us."

Gibbs said yesterday that special teams coach Danny Smith "went to work on it" and indicated the team "spent extra time on it and I think we'll probably make some changes." He did not elaborate.

Novak, signed before the Dallas game to replace injured John Hall (quadriceps strain), said yesterday, "I'm going to work on it, definitely. I need to get the ball higher at six yards [after the kick]. The guy [Pryce] jumped and got that one. I probably could have gotten it up a little more, but I really thought that was my best hit."

Better than the 53-yarder nullified by the Sellers penalty?

"The 53-yarder wasn't even a good hit," Novak said. "It's in a rainstorm. I'm just trying to hit it real hard. It just stayed straight and went through. The other one [the blocked kick] was better."

Novak and punter Derrick Frost, as well as the Redskins' punt and kickoff coverage teams, will have other major concerns Sunday. Both will be kicking to Dante Hall, the most dangerous return man in the NFL. Only in his sixth season, Hall has 10 career return touchdowns, third on the NFL's all-time return list behind former Redskin Brian Mitchell (13) and Eric Metcalf (12).

"Every time he touches the ball, he's got a chance to go the distance," Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said before the Broncos played the Chiefs last month. "He's just one of those guys you've got to get everybody around him."

Hall already has a 96-yard kickoff return this season, and broke an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown against Oakland that was nullified by a penalty. Nearly tackled at midfield on that punt return, Hall spun without leaving his feet while the closest defender sprawled on the turf after grabbing nothing but air.

"I got a chance to watch that return," Shanahan said. "It was just a shame there was a clip. It was just a great run."

Hall is averaging 28.1 yards per kickoff return this season, fifth in the NFL. So far, he's been bottled up on his six punt returns, averaging only seven yards with a long gain of 17 yards. But the Redskins know, as Frost said, "it doesn't matter what he's averaging statistically right now because the chances of him breaking one are so much better than any return man in the league, just because he's done it so many times.

"You try to move him around, catch him off guard. You can't put it down the middle every time. Some people might want to hang the ball up there. Some people might want to put it out wide. You just have to hit good punts. You've got to hit them where they're called so everyone knows exactly where they're going. You have to minimize his leverage on the field and get good coverage.

"The guys here have been unbelievable on punt coverage. They stay in their lanes, they're fundamentally sound and they don't miss tackles. As long as I give them a chance to make the tackle, those guys know what they're doing."

Novak also likely will change up his kickoffs and kick directionally, right and left. He does not have the same leg strength as a healthy John Hall to bash the ball high and deep for a touchback, always the best defense against a dangerous kickoff return man.

"You try to keep it out of his hands, and you don't want to give him a kick right down the middle," Novak said. "A kick where you can make a guy fair catch it inside the 20 is also effective. We've done that a few times already, and that's always an option. I'm sure they've seen it. You just try to make it difficult for him and try not to give him the whole field to work with. He's dangerous, and we respect him."

Redskins return defenders also know Dante Hall could be their worst nightmare. Washington has allowed opponents only 3.3 yards per punt return and an average of 20.1 yards on kickoffs in their first four games. But because Novak hasn't been pounding the ball into the end zone, the Redskins, on average, are allowing opponents to start drives with decent field position at the 28-yard line, ranking them 24th in the league.

"You just have to have everyone running at full tilt and be ready for anything," said Sellers, who plays on both punt and kickoff defensive units. "With [Hall], if there's no hole, he makes one. We think we've got one of the best coverage teams in the league, but this guy is definitely a handful."

Injury Report

The Redskins listed nine players on their initial injury report of the week, with kicker John Hall (quadriceps), running back Ladell Betts (groin) and cornerback Shawn Springs (shin) listed as questionable and the rest probable.

Hall is unlikely to play again this weekend, as he did not practice and has not played since Week 1. Springs left Sunday's game after aggravating a bruised shin. The Redskins are optimistic that Springs could play in Kansas City after X-rays and MRI exams showed nothing serious, while Betts hopes a few days of rest will help his strain. Running back Clinton Portis (calf), cornerback Carlos Rogers (ankle) and offensive lineman Randy Thomas (shoulder) all missed practice as well, but were listed as probable.

Defensive linemen Renaldo Wynn (knee), Joe Salave'a (thigh), and Cornelius Griffin (wrist) practiced but are listed as probable. Washington could face a roster crunch in the secondary should Rogers or Springs not be able to play. Veteran cornerback Walt Harris is back in practice and expected to play but missed the last two games with a calf injury. The team carried only three healthy cornerbacks in some games.

Brunell Wants Balance

Quarterback Mark Brunell, who set a career high with 53 passing attempts Sunday, said he is not looking to repeat that performance this weekend. "I hope not," said Brunell, 35. "I don't want to do that. I want us to be more efficient and I want to have balance. So, yeah, we'd like to throw fewer times than that." . . . Lineman Jon Jansen is down to one cast for his broken thumbs, but unfortunately for the right-hander, his left cast was removed. "That's all right," Jansen said. "You learn to do the important stuff left-handed pretty fast."

Staff writer Jason La Canfora contributed to this report.

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