Change has served as the theme of the Washington Redskins’ special teams units this season, and as the first quarter of the season drew to a close, new coordinator Keith Burns and the players under his charge had yet to completely work out the kinks.
Burns, hired last winter to replace Danny Smith who after nine seasons departed for the same position in Pittsburgh, insists he sees signs of progress despite glaring weaknesses. The Redskins entered this week’s bye ranked 27th in the league with an average of 20.3 yards per kick return and 22nd in punt returns (5.6).
But he has preached patience and persistence to his players.
Burns, himself a former special teams standout for Mike Shanahan in Denver, is in his first season as a coordinator after serving as an assistant for the Broncos the past five years. But Burns doesn’t believe that a lack of consistency — particularly in the returns game — is a result of him learning the job or players trying to get a feel for a new coach and his tactics.
“We had all the offseason and camp for that,” Burns says.
Youth and redefined roles also came into play when linebacker Perry Riley — not accustomed to playing left wing — whiffed on a stunt that allowed the Oakland Raiders to block a punt that was recovered for a touchdown Sunday, Burns and Shanahan say.
“It’s always a work in progress,” Burns said. “You’re dealing with a lot of young guys; you’re changing guys in and out. But at the same time, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re improving.
The coverage units, which lost ace Lorenzo Alexander to free agency but returned standouts Niles Paul and Reed Doughty, have fared better. Kickoff coverage has proven a strength as the Redskins have limited teams to 17.9 yards per return (third in the league). Meantime, the punt coverage unit has given up 7.3 yards per return, which ranks 12th in the NFL.
Rookie return man Chris Thompson has drawn the most scrutiny. Despite boasting impressive speed and elusiveness as a running back at Florida State, Thompson (a fifth-round pick) hadn’t fielded punts in a game since high school. But he earned a roster spot after scoring on a 69-yard return for a touchdown in the preseason.
The regular season has been more pedestrian, however. He ranks 14th in the league on kickoff returns, averaging 20.0 yards an attempt, and 21st on punt returns with an average of 5.1 yards per attempt.
Thompson opened the season as both the kick and punt returner, but wide receiver Josh Morgan replaced him on kickoffs midway through Washington’s meeting with Green Bay, and he maintained those duties against Oakland last week although all of Sebastian Janikowski’s kickoffs went out of the end zone for touchbacks. Thompson has remained as the punt returner.
Tracking balls in the air and decision-making after fielding the ball remain the biggest challenges for Thompson. On Sunday, he fielded a punt while backing up at his 8-yard line and returned it 10 yards, setting Washington up with improved field position. But he let a number of other punts hit the ground rather than attempt to field them.
“It’s, basically, just getting more comfortable catching punts,” Thompson said. “I allowed a couple to drop during the games, just because they fell like 10, 15 yards shorter than what I had expected. I’ve got to get comfortable running up on those punts and catching them and keep us in good field position.”
Shanahan didn’t have a problem with the decisions made Sunday, however.
“We always tell our punt returner, if it’s windy and that ball is kicked in an area that we’re not comfortable with, let it go,” Shanahan said. “It really didn’t cost us any yards. But the thing that I don’t want to do is a guy just lay out, make sure he catches it, and then all of a sudden he bobbles it and it’s a turnover. That usually costs you the game.”
Thompson’s saving grace has been his ability to avoid turnovers.
“You deal with rough spots with young returners,” Burns said. “I told him I’m willing to live with it as long as he’s making good decisions back there.”