Seeking spark in return game, the Redskins call on Hall

By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Emerging from the bye week, the Redskins plan to make some personnel changes before this weekend's game at Atlanta, none bigger than replacing primary punt returner Antwaan Randle El with DeAngelo Hall.

Danny Smith, special teams coordinator, will focus this week on helping Hall prepare to handle the majority of returns against the Falcons, and Santana Moss is expected to continue as a change-of-pace returner, a league source said.

When asked about the move after practice at Redskins Park, Coach Jim Zorn said a final decision has not been made, but acknowledged "one of the things that's going to happen is we're going to get another guy involved in punt returning and that's going to be DeAngelo."

"We're going to try to get him more and more reps," Zorn said. "I've been trying to get Santana at least a couple of punt returns a game, and I'm going to continue that. You're still going to see Antwaan out there, but it'll be a little more flipped as far as the involvement. You're going to see more and more" of Hall.

While that change is one of necessity for the Redskins, there will be others that are prompted by injury. While Chris Cooley recovers from ankle surgery, Fred Davis will be the team's primary tight end.

Though Davis, a second-round pick in the 2008 draft, had 78 yards and a touchdown after Cooley went down against Philadelphia, Davis knew he'd need to improve his pass-blocking. So he cancelled plans to fly home and instead called tight ends coach Scott Wachenheim, asking him if he'd remain in Ashburn during the bye week. The two met for 2 1/2 hours Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, putting in extra work to prepare Davis.

"We just went through the fundamentals," said Wachenheim. "From stance, steps, hand placement, eye placement -- things you would teach a Pop Warner football player. Just started back at square one and just started building on that."

Davis said Redskins coaches "know I can catch the ball. They just want to make sure I can block, to be able to handle all of that at once."

"It's definitely a good opportunity, a big chance to show people what you can do and why they picked you second round," Davis said.

With left tackle Stephon Heyer still nursing a sore knee, recently signed lineman Levi Jones is expected to take more reps in practice this week. And guard Chad Rinehart says he's been told he could see some time against the Falcons.

Zorn said that linebacker H.B. Blades and cornerback Byron Westbrook both suffered meniscus tears against the Eagles and underwent arthroscopic surgery last Tuesday.

"I think they have a chance to be ready in the next game [against the Denver Broncos on Nov. 15]," Zorn said, "and we'll just see how they progress."

Neither player attended Monday's practice and neither is expected to be active in Sunday's game. That likely means a pair of rookies -- linebacker Robert Henson and cornerback Kevin Barnes -- could be active for the first time this season, both primarily seeing action on special teams.

"I've been doing it the past eight weeks, but I've really got to go out and prepare like I'm definitely playing," said Barnes, the team's third-round pick. "I feel like I've been doing it in practice every day, but it's all about doing it on Sunday. Danny Smith told me this morning, 'We put you out there because we expect you do something.' "

The biggest change on special teams, though, will be the addition of Hall. As the team's top cornerback, Hall hasn't returned a punt since 2007, his final season with the Falcons. He fielded five punts for 41 yards that year. His longest return was 16 yards. The only other season he returned punts was 2005, when he fielded eight for 82 yards. His longest was a 27-yard return. In 13 career returns, he has three fair catches, two fumbles and an average return of 9.5 yards.

Zorn had not informed the players of the planned move as of Monday's practice, but Hall said whatever the team needs from him is fine. "It's cool. I don't mind" returning punts, said Hall.

The last time Hall regularly returned punts was in college, during his final two seasons at Virginia Tech. He returned 53 punts during his three-year career as a Hokie, averaging 14.8 yards and returning four punts for touchdowns.

Hall has practiced returning punts regularly every year as a pro. "This is a different league. This ain't college," he said. "But at the same time, I do feel like I'm pretty good at it."

Coaches acknowledge that too often, Randle El begins a return by running laterally, and at 30, he is no longer the explosive return man the Redskins brought in from Pittsburgh.

In 2005 -- Randle El's final year with the Steelers -- he averaged 10.2 yards per return. This year, he's averaging 5.2 yards on 11 returns and has fumbled twice. Of players with at least seven punt returns on the season -- or one per week -- Randle El's return average ranks 25th in the league. Adding to the ineffectiveness, only one player, Jim Leonhard of the New York Jets, has more fair catches (13 to Randle El's 11).

The Redskins are expected to continue turning to Moss when they're seeking a spark in the return game, but the team's No. 1 wideout is so important to the offense that "it's hard to put Santana out there every down and let him get knocked" around, Zorn said. "If we don't have him out there on offense . . . we just can't risk that.

"It's a feel for me and it's a commitment for myself to make sure we have ourselves a chance. And I love Antwaan Randle El. I really do. But he has . . . he's dropped a couple. And it's not that I don't have confidence. In fact, I'd have him out there today if I felt it was the right situation."

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