With Niles Paul (84) watching in the distance, Cowboys return man Dwayne Harris sprints to a punt-return touchdown Sunday night (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Tight end Niles Paul, one of the Washington Redskins’ key special teams players, said Wednesday that the transition to first-year special teams coach Keith Burns from his predecessor, Danny Smith, has been a factor in the struggles the units have experienced so far this season.

“I don’t think everybody is completely buying into certain aspects of the teachings,” Paul said at Redskins Park. “I feel we are getting to a point where we are starting to trust Keith and we need to put it on film.”

Paul stopped short of criticizing Burns, who was hired by Coach Mike Shanahan in the offseason after Smith left for the Pittsburgh Steelers, or blaming the Redskins’ early-season failures on special teams on Burns. But Paul said there are certain differences in the systems of Smith and Burns, such as the way in which players are instructed to line up in certain stances in particular situations. And that has led to an adjustment period, Paul said.

Paul called the Redskins’ performance on special teams during Sunday night’s loss at Dallas “unacceptable” and “embarrassing.” The Redskins allowed an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown and a 90-yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown.

“It was embarrassing,” Paul said. “I watched the film two or three times just to see what went wrong. And it was embarrassing to watch. Each time was just as bad. There’s not too much to say. We need to fix it. And it’s going to get fixed.”

Eighth-year safety Reed Doughty has called a meeting for Friday at which special teams players will watch game tapes and search for solutions, Paul said.

“Reed is going to have a couple of the special teams players in there and we’re gonna watch film,” Paul said. “We’re gonna figure out how we can all play off of each other. That’s what special teams is all about is being comfortable as a unit and playing off each other. It’s everybody being able to know, ‘If I’m taking this gap, you can replace me here.’ That’s all special teams is, is everybody meshing with each other. It’s just like offense and defense. Everybody has to mesh and be able to play off each other.”

Shanahan defended Burns on Monday, calling Burns a capable coach but acknowledging that Burns has had a rough start. Shanahan said the Redskins must have a player or two emerge on special teams to fill the void created by the offseason loss of linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, a Pro Bowl selection last season on special teams who signed with the Arizona Cardinals as a free agent.

“Lorenzo was a great special teams player and having him out there was beneficial to all of us,” Paul said Wednesday. “He made all of us better as far as Reed, D.J. [Gomes, a former Redskins safety] and me. But Coach Shanahan is right. Somebody has to step up. We all have to start making plays. I’m pretty sure when he [says] somebody, he’s challenging each individual player to step up and make plays.”

Paul said he doesn’t necessarily feel the need to take up the leadership slack himself entirely.

“As far as taking more on my shoulders, no,” Paul said. “I’ve got Reed and Coach Keith talking. [Jerome] Murphy is out there. We just need more players to step up. Everybody has to be out there and with the effort, everybody has to want to make a play because what happened Sunday night is unacceptable and we have to be better as a unit if we expect to win games because special teams is an important part of this game. And we need to win that.”

Paul said the Redskins also are adjusting to having a new set of core players on special teams with players such as Alexander and Gomes gone.

“You definitely noticed there was a difference because you don’t have the same guys as in like a D.J. Gomes and  Lorenzo Alexander that you had last year who we all — and Lorenzo being the big, key name last year — we all played off each other,” Paul said. “I know that if I can force this ball in there, then either D.J., Lorenzo or Reed was gonna be in there and make that play, and [Bryan] Kehl. So we just need to get back to that as a whole core because being on special teams is a privilege. And everybody who’s out there has to look at it like that. Everybody needs to understand that. We’ve got to improve the special teams. We have to. If we want to win any games this year, we have to be better on special teams.”

Update (2:50 p.m.)

Doughty said that Friday’s scheduled special teams meeting might become a regular staple of the work week for the Redskins. He called Burns’s system “definitely a little bit different” from Smith’s system but said players must adjust.

“At the end of the day, we get paid to go on Sunday and make plays,” Doughty said. “Whether it’s because of the system or in spite of the system, whatever your feelings are, it really doesn’t matter. It’s still a reflection of us that they scored a touchdown on Sunday and had another big return. And we didn’t look good doing it. So I’m gonna do whatever I can with the extra effort, the extra focus, and get as many people to come with us as we can.”

Doughty, like Paul, called the Redskins’ performance on special teams “embarrassing” against the Cowboys.

“We can talk about ‘Zo all day and ‘Zo is a phenomenal special teams player,” Doughty said of Alexander. “But it’s always a group of guys. ‘Zo had a lot of tackles [on special teams] last year. But so did a lot of other guys. We have a lot of young guys playing special teams. We have a lot of guys who’ve never played special teams before. It’s really just meshing together — regardless of the system, meshing together and making plays on Sunday. That’s what it’s really about.”

Paul said that Devin Hester, the Chicago Bears’ returner who holds the NFL’s career record for touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns, is “probably licking his fingers” to face the Redskins on Sunday. But that also is an opportunity, Paul said, for the Redskins to show they can improve.

“Keith Burns, he’s a different individual from Danny,” Paul said. “Everybody here loved Danny and having Danny here was very beneficial to everybody across the board. But Keith is a different guy with a different scheme and everybody has to get used to that. Everybody has to believe in the coach and at the end of the day, you just have to make plays when you’re out there. That’s all Danny allowed us to do last year was just go out there and make plays. It was a simple as that, and I think that’s what we’re missing this year.”

Have a Redskins question? E-mail Mike Jones at mike.jones@washpost.com with the subject line “Mailbag question” for him to answer it in The Mailbag on Tuesday.

What’s ahead:

● The Redskins began practice at 1 p.m. Coach Mike Shanahan and quarterback Robert Griffin III speak with reporters afterward.

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