The Redskins have done a lot to try to improve the team this offseason. They added free agents and a new coordinator on defense. They revamped the right side of their offensive line and hired one of the best offensive line coaches in the business. The running game will emphasize power. And, in case you haven’t heard, they are opening the season with a new quarterback.
All of these changes could work out well and be undone if the Redskins don’t improve on special teams. According to Football Outsiders their special teams ranked 29th in the NFL last year. A blocked punt helped cost them their season opener against Houston and they gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown in a three-point loss to the Eagles.
But it wasn’t so much the big special teams gaffes that hurt them. It was the poor field position they got after returning kickoffs (21.8 avg, 25th in NFL) and punts (7.2/21st). All things considered (including a lack of takeaways by the defense), they started their average drive on the 25.1-yard line, the second-worst average starting field position in the NFL.
The Redskins aren’t getting off to a good start when it comes to fixing those problems. They allowed a 103-yard kickoff return to the Ravens’ Asa Jackson just before halftime of their preseason game on Saturday. What happened on the play?
“Unfortunately, the kickoff was supposed to go on the other side of the field,” said Jay Gruden. “Kai [Forbath] just pulled it. So everybody was thinking they were covering the right corner and it went to the left corner. It was a line drive and there was no hang time there either. It was just a poor kick by Kai. Then we just didn’t adjust very good.”
Such a gaffe by Forbath is correctable. The losses of special teams stalwarts Adam Hayward, Niles Paul, and Logan Paulsen will be harder to overcome. The three of them played a combined 642 special teams snaps last year.
When Gruden and his staff get down to the business of cutting the roster to 53 over the next few days, special teams will be a prime consideration for the last handful of jobs. He said that if Player A is a little better at a position but Player B at the same position is more of a special teams contributor, B could win the job.
“That factors big-time into our decision making as far as who's making the roster,” he said. “We've stressed the importance of special teams all throughout OTAs and training camp. I think 99 percent of the guys in there know the importance of special teams . . . The rest of them know the importance of special teams and how their roster life depends on the fact that they need to play good specials – whether its kick coverage, whether it's punt, punt return, whatever it is, they have to perform there because you're right, if you're the third linebacker or the fourth linebacker, you better be active on special teams. Same with safety, same with corner, same with tight end, running back, so all those guys, it's very important for them to show on special teams."
So if you see a head-scratching cut or a surprise inclusion on the roster, the reason might not be big-play ability on offense or defense. It could be ability to cover punts and block on kickoff returns.
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