Special teams coach Danny Smith headed to a meeting room in the Washington Redskins' hotel Saturday night to do some final video preparation and found his star pupil already there. James Thrash, who received a game ball for his special teams contributions in Sunday's 17-10 Redskins victory over the Detroit Lions, was sitting alone watching video of Detroit's punting and kicking tendencies, extra studying he put to use throughout the game.
On three occasions Sunday, Thrash prevented a punt from going into the end zone and helped force the Lions to start a drive inside the 3-yard line. Thrash's 43-yard punt return in the second quarter was the catalyst for Washington's first scoring drive, and he made several key tackles.
Thrash was one of many standouts on Washington's previously lagging special teams units as the Redskins capped their scoring by returning a blocked punt for a touchdown, something the team had not done since 1982, early in Coach Joe Gibbs's first tenure with the club.
"I couldn't be prouder of a guy who works so hard," Smith said of Thrash. "He details his work, studies the game. . . . What's so gratifying as a coach is to see somebody put in the effort, put in the hours, put in the time looking for certain things and then coming out and being productive. That doesn't happen just by showing up, and James Thrash doesn't just show up."
Washington entered the game needing a spark on special teams. The Redskins had allowed several significant kick and punt returns this season, but failed to muster any themselves. Chad Morton, the team's return specialist, was struggling before tearing a knee ligament last week that required season-ending surgery, leaving Thrash, a wide receiver, returning punts and running back Ladell Betts handling kickoffs.
The Lions traditionally rank among the NFL's best on special teams -- standout Eddie Drummond returned a kick 91 yards for a touchdown in September -- and several Redskins said Detroit's players took them lightly, a perception that helped to fuel Washington's victory at Ford Field and raise the Redskins' record to 3-5.
"I didn't feel that they respected us at all, and that had something to do with it," said safety Todd Franz, who was in on the blocked punt. "It was just their attitude at the beginning of the game and some stuff I heard leading up to the game, just some whispers I heard. I just didn't think they respected us."
Tom Tupa, who has been superb this season, averaged 47.9 yards per punt Sunday, and Thrash downed his second punt at the Lions 1-yard line. With less than a minute to go in the first half, Thrash again worked his way to the end zone and reached across the goal line, batting the ball back into play where it was downed by Ade Jimoh at the 3. Thrash prevented the Redskins' final punt from going for a touchback at the two-minute warning, contorting his body with his toes inches from the goal line and finessing the ball back to the 2, where Betts downed it, giving Detroit terrible field position to begin what could have been a game-tying drive.
"To be honest with you, I didn't know where I was," Thrash said. "I just knew I was close and I just jumped up and tried to keep my feet from touching the line."
Smith, a highly animated coach who is in constant motion on the sidelines and loses his voice by the end of most games, was particularly vocal with his players this week. "Danny pretty much challenged us," Thrash said. "And I thought we came out and performed today." That focus was clear when Thrash and Mike Sellers delivered heavy hits on Drummond -- who averaged a paltry 4.2 yards on punt returns Sunday -- and when safety Sean Taylor recovered a Lions onside kick late in the game.
Thrash returned a punt 43 yards early in the second quarter, which led to a field goal. He snatched the ball as it bounded off the turf and began scampering up the right sideline, picking up nice blocks from Jimoh, Taylor Jacobs and Lemar Marshall along the way. "I just saw Ade Jimoh kicking his guy out and I saw Lemar coming up," Thrash said, "So I decided, 'I'm going to try to kick it outside, I don't know if I'm going to get there or not.' "
Smith's finest moment came in the third quarter, when he used a new punt-blocking scheme the team had practiced for the last five weeks. Detroit punter Nick Harris was standing near the 10-yard line and received a sloppy snap, which gave the Redskins a few extra seconds. Jacobs, a speedy wide receiver who had never blocked a punt before, was lined up on the outside, positioned near cornerback Walt Harris, and when he saw his blocker flinch, Jacobs tore off the line.
"He looked inside and tried to come back," Jacobs said. "And then it was too late."
Jacobs lunged at the punter and deflected the ball -- Franz was about to do the same thing from the other side ("It was a jailbreak," Franz said) -- and Harris recovered it and rambled 13 yards for Washington's first punt return for a touchdown since Sept. 19, 1982.
"I told them when we shot it, it would work," Smith said. "And it did." Thrash joined the celebration of the game-winning play, and will likely be among the first to arrive at Redskins Park Monday to relive the special teams exploits and begin the studying process anew.
"That was a great play," Thrash said. "I can't wait to watch it on film."