Redskins’ special teams coach Ben Kotwica has gone from being on the hot seat to being one of the more valued members of the staff. That’s what will happen when you engineer a remarkable turnaround in your unit’s performance.
In 2013 the Redskins’ special teams were historically bad. They gave up three punt return touchdowns and one on a kickoff return. Their average starting point for a drive was the 25.3 yard line, the worst in the league. Their special teams DVOA was minus-12.0 percent, the worst in the NFL by five percentage points.
Enter Kotwica and after showing some progress in 2014 the Redskins finished in the top 10 in special teams DVOA in 2015, ranking sixth at 3.2 percent. They had some issues early on, giving up a game-winning punt return for a touchdown against the Dolphins in Week 1 and getting a punt blocked for a safety at the Giants in Week 3. But they settled in after those first two games and they were solid the rest of the way.
Kotwica faces some challenges when it comes to improving his units. For one thing, he has some holes to fill. Darrel Young and Jeron Johnson, who were 1-2 in special teams snaps last year, both are gone. Deshazor Everett, who was fourth in special teams snaps, may have a tough time making the 53. The status of Kyshoen Jarrett, another key special teams contributor, is very much in doubt due to a nerve injury.
But Scot McCloughan knew that this was happening and he went out and signed free agents David Bruton and Terrance Garvin, veterans known for special teams prowess, this offseason.
“Those guys have been excellent, not only on the field but off the field,” said Kotwica. “They’ve got excellent leadership [skills] and they’ve got some pedigree in playing the special teams part of the game. It’s important to them and it transcends down across the unit.”
Special teams will also benefit from the return of Niles Paul, a key special teams player throughout his Redskins career who missed all of 2015 with a broken ankle.
As always, rookies will be expected to make a special teams contribution. Kotwica noted that second-round pick Su’a Cravens and third-rounder Kendall Fuller were particularly impressive during OTAs and minicamp.
“It’s a good young crop and I’m looking forward to working with them come August,” said Kotwica.
They will also be challenged by the rule book. An experimental rule for 2016 will place the ball at the 25 yard line after a touchback on a kickoff. That has led to speculation that some teams will try to execute high kickoffs that will be fielded inside the five yard line to try to pin teams back instead of booming the ball into the end zone and giving the other team possession at the 25.
The Redskins are working on various scenarios.
“I think that new rule changes a little bit about how employ the ball from a kickoff coverage standpoint and we’ve worked different options on how we want to do that,” said Kotwica. “And it also affects the way you want to return the football. There’s a little bit of both sides there. We’ve worked multiple options so I think the good thing about Dustin is that with his leg strength he gives you that option of hitting the ball with good hang time and good distance. If you want to hit touchbacks I think he’s more than capable of doing that.”
With contact being such a key part of special teams play, it will be difficult to see how the special teams are progressing until they put the pads on in Richmond in six weeks.