By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
With the Redskins' punt coverage units having given up two touchdowns in the first six games, special teams coach Danny Smith turned to running back Rock Cartwright for last Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns. The Redskins were vulnerable to a specific type of return, one that was perfectly suited to Joshua Cribbs, Cleveland's explosive Pro Bowl return specialist, and Smith believed Cartwright could neutralize him.
Cribbs returned five punts with middling success; one punt was downed, another went out of bounds and another went for a touchback. But twice Cartwright made stellar one-on-one tackles on Cribbs, including a diving takedown that prevented what could have been a second-quarter touchdown, a play that may have altered the course of the game.
To the naked eye, the tackle appeared to be just another violent midfield collision in a game filled with them. But in fact the meeting between Cartwright and Cribbs at the Cleveland 25-yard line, 4 minutes 1 second into the second quarter, was the result of intense preparation -- a punt coverage scheme choreographed by Smith that was flawlessly executed by Cartwright, one of the Redskins' unsung heroes.
"To make a play like that is a special thing in this league," said linebacker Khary Campbell, who captains the special teams along with Cartwright and is his close friend. "What seems like a mundane, regular punt play, there's actually a lot of responsibility that goes into it, and he carried it out just like they wanted it done."
Cartwright, who is listed at 5 feet 8 but probably is closer to 5-6, played on every special teams unit, as usual, against the Browns, averaging 30 yards per kickoff return. He also rushed three times in Ladell Betts's absence. His greatest contribution came in containing Cribbs, however, particularly as he cut back across the field on that punt return early in the second quarter.
Going into the game, Smith had asked Cartwright to alter his normal role of chasing the ball down on punt returns and instead to guard against a cutback, where the Redskins had been getting gashed.
"That was a big-time assignment, and I like big-time assignments," Cartwright said. "I think I can handle the challenge."
"We made an adjustment in coverage, which obviously we needed to do," Smith said. "We had gotten beat by some speed this year, and on that particular play with Rock it did help us. Anytime you ask Rock to do something like that, you know it's going to get done. I trust Rock as much as any player I've ever coached. He's a tireless worker and a great leader."
As the "personal protector" on the punting unit, Cartwright, 28, lines up roughly five yards off the line and acts as the central nervous system, an extension of Smith on the field. Much like middle linebacker London Fletcher sets the defense, or quarterback Jason Campbell adjusts pass protections, Cartwright reads the return team, makes a call -- he picked one of three possible alignments in this instance -- and then utters a cadence on the field like a quarterback before the snap. After the snap he is the last line of defense should the opposition try to block the kick, ensuring the punter is safe before becoming the aggressor and running downfield to make a tackle.
"He tells me what side to block to," long snapper Ethan Albright said. "He tells us if we're going fast or slow. He's directing the whole thing. It's based off the game plan each week, and what they're doing, and his read."
Smith did not want to burden Ryan Plackemeier, the team's newly signed punter, with directional punting by having him angle the ball toward one sideline or the other against the Browns. Plackemeier had not punted in a game in six weeks and had kicked more than usual the previous week, going through two tryouts and practice. But in the second quarter, with the game scoreless and the Redskins' offense sputtering, pinning Cribbs to the left sideline made sense. The punt, from the Washington 44, ended up drifting toward the left hash marks.
This season, in punts to the left hash, teams had been exposing Washington. Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown in a similar situation, and the returns of Dante Hall were a key component of St. Louis's upset of the Redskins. Nimble return specialists had been able to drop back for negative yardage and, with the Redskins' coverage team angling toward a wall of blockers set up on the "near" side of the field, reverse course to the "field" side for big returns.
Against Cribbs, Smith changed Cartwright's responsibility. Normally the personal protector would hunt for the football -- charting his course downfield based on where the ball goes. Now Smith wanted Cartwright to hang back and seal off that "field side," fighting his instinct to follow the ball and instead guarding against a big gain to that side.
"It was between Rock and Danny," Khary Campbell said "It wasn't a whole scheme that he had to involve the whole punting team in. Danny was like, 'Hey we've got guys getting to the ball and then bouncing to the field side, and that's really been hurting us. Can you do this for the team?' And he did it. You really have to have a lot of discipline there, because you want to make a play and get to the ball."
Cribbs caught the punt at the 8-yard line, peeled away from his wall and came back to the field side. He was churning downfield 17 yards later when Cartwright arrived, ending Cribbs's longest return of the day. Cartwright had already raced 40 yards or so, angling toward the field side. With Cribbs in full stride, he extended his body and snapped him to the turf.
"Oh, man, that was awesome," Albright said. "He saved a touchdown right there, without a doubt."
Cartwright later returned a kickoff 36 yards from the 1 after Cleveland cut the lead to 7-3 late in the third quarter -- again altering field position -- and sacrificed his body as a holder for the punt returners, an assignment that generally calls for him to take on much larger players from a three-point stance. Smith assigns Cartwright a matchup against the other team's top performers, and usually opposing coaches then alter their scheme to get a larger player on him.
"He takes on those big linebackers that can run like the wind every week," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, the primary punt returner. "It's all heart. If you're in a fight in the alley, you want Rock right there on your side, because he'll fight for you. He's one of those stone guys you need to have."