Four games are in the books, and the Washington Redskins have reached their bye week. The jury still is out on this team as three-quarters of the season remains. But we’ll take this time to evaluate the team at its current state. Today features a look at the special teams. Wednesday we examined the offense, and Thursday we checked out the defense.
The Redskins entered training camp with a holdover place kicker about whom there were many questions (Graham Gano); a new punter cast aside by a division rival (Sav Rocca); and a return specialist whose potential for a game-changing play at any moment almost guaranteed him a spot on the roster (Brandon Banks). Through four games, each has had his moments, though some more than others.
> Sav Rocca — Coach Mike Shanahan said last week that in all his years of coaching in both the pros and college, he has never seen someone punt like Rocca, a five-year veteran who came to the NFL from Australian rules football in his home country and wasn’t re-signed by the Eagles after 2010. Rocca’s 44.2-yard average ranks 19th in the league, but that hardly matters. He has placed 12 of 21 punts inside the 20, a total that’s the best in the league; no one else has more than nine. At a crucial point in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over St. Louis, he boomed a 63-yarder. And his hang time has been good enough that the Redskins’ coverage team has helped him to a net average of 41.0 yards, seventh in the NFL. “He’s a weapon,” Shanahan said. His one screw-up: mishandling a snap on a field goal in Week 3 at Dallas, a costly mistake in an 18-16 loss. Still, Shanahan calls him a superb holder, and his signing is quietly one of Washington’s best of the offseason.
> Lorenzo Alexander and the coverage teams — The Redskins won’t determine their special teams captain until a vote following their eighth game, but it would be shocking if Alexander didn’t win. Last year, he won in “probably one of the biggest landslides” Shanahan said he had ever seen. Alexander leads the coverage teams of special teams coach Danny Smith, which are allowing 19.2 yards per kickoff return (third in the NFL) and 6.8 yards per punt return (ninth in the NFL). “He’s a great leader,” Shanahan said of Alexander. “I think everybody looks at him as special teams captain.”
Areas of concern:
> Brandon Banks — As a rookie free agent out of Kansas State in 2010, Banks became one of the Redskins’ most explosive players, returning one kick 96 yards for a touchdown against Detroit and losing two other return touchdowns to penalties. That meant he couldn’t enter his second season as an unknown.
“We’ve got some teams that are pretty fired up knowing that if there’s a lull, he can go the distance both in the punt return and the kickoff return,” Shanahan said. “I’ve noticed a sense of urgency with the teams that are playing us.”
Banks has returned 13 kickoffs for a 22.2-yard average (25th in the NFL), and hasn’t broken one; his long is just 31 yards. On 14 punt returns, he’s averaging 10.4 yards (15th in the league) with a long of 35.
“We’ve got to get better in our returns, for sure,” Shanahan said.
> Graham Gano — A year after struggling to hold his job, Gano enjoyed a 10-for-10 preseason and easily won his position back. But through four games, he has missed three of his 10 field-goal attempts, albeit one on the aforementioned poor hold by Rocca. Still, that percentage ties him for 28th in the league. More worrisome: His misses have all been between 30-39 yards, makeable kicks that must be converted on a team that has struggled somewhat scoring touchdowns from inside the red zone. On the plus side, 12 of Gano’s 19 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, and he has helped hold the seven that have been returned to that 19.2-yard average that ranks third in the league. But despite the stellar preseason, Gano doesn’t yet inspire supreme confidence.
What we know so far:
Rocca could be a Pro Bowl-type performer for the Redskins, who haven’t had stability at punter for years. He could be particularly important in difficult divisional games late in the season, when field position will be at a premium. The coverage teams are typically effective, with younger players such as Perry Riley and Niles Paul showing they take the same pride Alexander and Mike Sellers have taken on special teams for years.
Banks, though, needs to prove he’s the kind of weapon he was a year ago. The Redskins say his surgically repaired knee – the one that slowed him toward the end of last season – is better, but he hasn’t shown the same explosion yet. All it takes is breaking one return at a key point to remind everyone why he could be so important for this team.
Gano might be most critical component. The Redskins simply don’t blow out teams; they have won just two of their last 52 games by more than a touchdown. Given that razor-thin line, Gano likely will face several crucial kicks over the remaining 12 games of the season, kicks that could have an impact on how long the Redskins remain in the hunt for a playoff spot.