Trip to Arizona offers the final audition for a host of hopeful Washington Redskins

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 12:16 AM

In the Washington Redskins' final preseason game, the scoreboard doesn't show the real winners and losers. That's not known until the team returns to town, coaches review film and a team employee goes through the locker room, removing name placards from the stalls of each player cut from the roster.

"It's always nervous. It's the last straw," said wide receiver Brandon Banks, an undrafted rookie free agent. "A guy like me that came from nothing is trying to make this team. It's my last chance to show them what I got."

The Redskins close their preseason schedule against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday night, and two days later must trim their roster from 75 players to 53. While most of the team's starters won't play against the Cardinals, the game will serve a final audition for many others. And that means coaches will be paying special attention to special teams play.

The final few players on an NFL roster may be listed as receivers or linebackers, but they earn their keep by contributing on kickoffs, punts and field goals.

"It's one of those things that's not really in the job description," said Anthony Armstrong. "I play receiver. But all I do isn't just run routes. Now you gotta know how to get off blocks and run down and tackle somebody.

"They make that very well known," Armstrong continued. "They tell you, 'You're not going to be the starter and if you're not starting, you better know how to do something else. If you want to be on the team, you're going to have to know how to cover a kick, return a kick or go down there and make a tackle.' It comes with the territory."

Entering the game against the Cardinals, Coach Mike Shanahan has a pretty good idea of which players he'll take into the regular season. The final preseason game mostly settles position battles at the bottom of the depth chart, locks in the final couple of spots on the 53-man roster and helps coaches decide who they'd like to sign to the practice squad.

Each of those decisions hinges largely on how players produce on special teams. For Shanahan, going through the motions of special teams play in practice is nothing like seeing it in live game action - and he only gets four opportunities at that in the preseason.

"You can guess on offense and defense and get a good feel because [of] the way people wrap up and knowing their assignments. On special teams, there's nothing like going 100 percent," Shanahan said. "A lot of special teams is gameday."

Of course, this isn't a news flash to many of the players who've been living life on the roster bubble the past several weeks. Players need only consult the depth chart, which is updated each week, to see where they stand.

At the start of training camp, there were plenty of special teams jobs available. While the offensive and defensive schemes have seen significant makeovers, the special teams units change every year. This year, there were questions surrounding each specialist position, but Danny Smith, special teams coordinator, said most have been answered.

Punter Josh Bidwell, who missed all of last season with a hip injury, has been steady throughout the preseason. Second-year place kicker Graham Gano, who had only four professional kicks entering the offseason, is 4 for 5 in field goal attempts in the first three preseason games, and coaches like what they've seen from him so far.

"It's night and day from last year," Gano said. "Last year I was learning a lot, still trying to learn how to be more consistent as a kicker. Now, I've kind of figured all of that out. Now I know what to do; it's just a matter of doing it."

Still up in the air, though, are the kickoff return and punt return jobs.

Cornerback Phillip Buchanon is listed atop the depth chart, but only Banks and Terrence Austin have returned punts in preseason games. Banks had a 77-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills that has been marred slightly by a pair of fumbles. Subtract Banks's long touchdown, Austin has a slightly higher average (8.8 yards per return to Banks's 6.2).

"Every play, you're looking for that big play," Austin said, "but it's not always there. You want to try to get the most out of it as you can. So if you got to take a 15-yard, 16-yard return, rather than a 77-yard return, then you got to take that because it's all good. It's all about setting up opportunities. That's punt returning."

While Devin Thomas is listed as the top kick returner, the Redskins have used five players in their first three preseason games. Keiland Williams, competing for the final running back spot, leads all returners, averaging 23.7 yards on his three returns.

"We really don't have an idea. . . .We like some better than others," said Smith. "Until we break the team down, we really won't know. We've got a lot of players and we've got a lot of talent."

Shanahan has said he doesn't need to see veterans, such as Buchanon, DeAngelo Hall and Santana Moss, return punts or kicks in the preseason because he already knows their abilities. But they still should be in the mix once the regular season starts.

Because coaches are mixing and matching players and the full roster won't be set until Saturday afternoon, Smith won't know precisely who his personnel will be for a couple more days. But he likes what he's seen so far.

"Overall we've been pleased," he said. "We're progressing. It's a work in progress. There's a lot of questions that we're still looking to answer. But we'll be ready when the season starts."

Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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