The special teams misadventures for the Washington Redskins this season have included allowing long returns, having kicks blocked and throwing an incompletion on a fake punt on which the intended receiver didn’t know a pass was coming.
They also have included having some of the league’s least productive return units. The Redskins are ranked 30th in the NFL in punt return average and 31st in kickoff return average.
Tight end Niles Paul, who averaged 24.7 yards per kickoff return on three returns during the Redskins’ most recent loss at Minnesota — an improvement on the team’s overall average of 20 yards per kickoff return this season — said he’s hopeful that a big return or two could be on the horizon.
“Just from watching the Vikings film, a lot of people were like, ‘Aw, it was only 26, 25 [yards] or whatever our return [was].’ But it’s literally one block away,” Paul said. “You’re one man away. … It’s that easy. It’s that quick. It’s that simple. So knowing that and going into this week, I think we’ve built a lot of confidence. I think we’re due to break one on a punt or kick return.”
Paul seems to have taken over as the Redskins’ top kickoff returner, ahead of wide receiver Josh Morgan. The team’s punt-returning duties potentially could be transferred this weekend from Morgan to wide receiver Nick Williams, who was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster this week when rookie running back Chris Thompson was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list. Thompson took over as the punt returner entering the season after cornerback Richard Crawford suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. The Redskins have averaged 6.1 yards per punt return this season.
The team must improve all aspects of its return game, including its blocking, to be more productive, Paul said.
“I just think that each individual on special teams on the return unit, including the return man, has to elevate their game as far as the return man getting up the field, the blockers holding their blocks that much longer, for a second longer to give him an opportunity to see the holes,” Paul said. “It’s a combination of everything and we’ve just got to get it rolling. I feel like once you do, great things can happen.
“I know last week in the kick-return game, in my opinion, there was progress not because of the returner but because people were holding their blocks and getting on their blocks and just that want-to to hold your blocks a little longer. That was creating holes and creating seams, and then you start building some confidence in that like, ‘It’s that easy. It’s that simple.’ So I think that’s it. We need to flip the switch and everybody as a unit — all 11 people, including that return man — need to elevate their game on the return unit.”
Safety Reed Doughty, another of the Redskins’ special teams leaders, expressed similar sentiments, saying: “I think really it’s just people staying on blocks and get a little bit of excitement with the return, maybe getting some stuff going. We kind of had the same situation last year and Crawford came in and gave us a spark and really did a lot on his own, and then people started blocking better and better. I think it’s two-fold.”
Doughty said he’s beginning to sense some general improvements in the Redskins’ special teams performance.
“We’re playing a lot faster and a lot more aggressive as a whole on special teams — still not to the standard that I’m used to and that we want to be. But I can see a glimpse of what we want to be,” Doughty said.
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● Kyle Shanahan hopes for a better start on offense vs. the Eagles.
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