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The QB won't matter if special teams don't improve

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The QB won't matter if special teams don't improve

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.

RELATED: DeSean Jackson discusses Robert Griffin III's 'unfortunate situation'

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.

MORE REDSKINS: Why didn't the Redskins have a quarterback competition?

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Redskins schedule preview: Week 16 vs. Titans

Redskins schedule preview: Week 16 vs. Titans

We’re previewing every game of the 2018 season with a look forward and a look back. Up today, it’s the game against the Titans. 

Week 16 December 22 or 23, Nissan Stadium (the date of the game will be determined no later than Week 8 in early November)

2017 Titans: 9-7, Second in AFC South, lost in the divisional round 

Projected 2018 wins per Westgate SuperBook: 8

Early line: Redskins +5.5

Key additions: CB Malcolm Butler, DT Bennie Logan, RB Dion Lewis

Key losses: DT Sylvester Williams, RB DeMarco Murray

Biggest questions: 

  • QB Marcus Mariota improved from his rookie year and had a solid 2016. But he regressed last season. In which direction is his career headed?
  • After head coach Mike Mularkey took the Titans to the second round of the playoffs he was summarily fired. Will they regret making to switch to Mike Vrabel?

Series history

The all-time series between the two teams is tied a 6-6; the teams split six games when the franchise was the Houston Oilers and they have gong 3-3 since the move to Tennessee. 

Series notables

The first time: October 10, 1971, RFK Stadium—The Redskins offense didn’t score a touchdown but that often didn’t matter when George Allen was the head coach as they still won 22-13. Washington’s scoring came on five Curt Knight field goals and on an 18-yard interception return by defensive end Ron McDole. That touchdown came on one of five takeaways by the Redskins defense. 

The last time: October 19, 2014, FedEx Field—Quarterback Kirk Cousins was struggling in the first half, losing a fumble and throwing a head-scratching interception. With the Redskins trailing the 2-4 Titans 10-6, Jay Gruden decided it was time for a change and Colt McCoy came in to play QB in the second half. 

Things clicked immediately as McCoy threw a short pass to Pierre Garçon, who turned upfield and rolled in for a 70-yard touchdown. It was back and forth in the second half and the Redskins were trailing 17-16 when they got the ball on their own 20 with 3:14 to play. McCoy led a 10-play drive that consumed all of the remaining time and culminated in a 22-yard Kai Forbath field goal to win it 19-17. 

The best time: November 3, 1991, RFK Stadium—To win nine straight NFL games to start out a season, you need solid blocking, accurate passing, hard-hitting tackling, inspired play calling, crisp execution and, as was the case today, a little bit of luck. Chip Lohmiller kicked a 41-yard field goal for Washington to give the Redskins a 16-13 overtime win over Houston. Darrell Green’s interception at the Houston 33 set up the kick. All of that, however, would not have happened if not for Oiler placekicker Ian Howfield. 

After Houston tied the game on a one-yard run by Lorenzo White with 1:42 left in the game, Brian Mitchell fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Oilers prime field position. Howfield came in for a 33-yard field goal attempt with one second left. It appeared that the winning streak would end at eight. “You don’t exactly give up, but you’re not far from it,” said Andre Collins. 

The snap was perfect as was the hold, but Howfield’s kick was wide right. 

On Houston’s second offensive play of overtime, Oiler quarterback Warren Moon got bumped as he threw an out pass and Green picked it off. Three Ernest Byner runs preceded Lohmiller’s game-ending kick. 

The worst time: October 30, 1988, Astrodome—Washington entered the contest riding a three-game winning streak and appeared to be rounding into form to defend their Super Bowl title. Warren Moon threw three touchdown passes to Drew Hill, however, and the Redskins took a 41-17 whipping that wasn’t even as close as the final score would indicate.

Redskins schedule series

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCS  and follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCS  and on Instagram @RichTandler

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Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

Inside the numbers: Will a 1,000-yard receiver make or break the 2018 Redskins?

In 2017, the Redskins missed the playoffs while no receiver went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Jamison Crowder led the team with 789 receiving yards.

In 2016, the Redskins missed the playoffs while two receivers went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Pierre Garçon gained 1,041 yards that year while DeSean Jackson posted 1,005 receiving yards. 

In 2015, the Redskins did make the playoffs. That season the team had no receivers go for 1,000 yards, though Jordan Reed got close with 952 receiving yards. 

Is there a lesson here? Is there a takeaway that can help to predict the 2018 season?

Going into this season, no Redskins wideout has ever accounted for 1,000 yards in a single season. In their career.

Former first-round pick Josh Doctson accounted for just more than 500 receiving yards last season, catching 35 of the 78 balls thrown his way.  Crowder was mostly productive, but there was an expectation, fair or not, he would make more of a jump in 2018 than he did. Jordan Reed hardly played. 

To help the group, the Redskins added Paul Richardson in free agency. Last year playing for the Seahawks, Richardson went for 703 yards on 44 catches. The speedster gives the Redskins a true downfield threat the team lacked in 2017, and that could help the whole offense. In fact, it better help the whole offense. 

Still, looking at a top three of Doctson, Crowder and Richardson, it's hard to confidently predict a 1,000-yard receiver from the bunch. 

Could it happen? Absolutely. Any of the three could pop to a four-digit total.

Would you put your own hard-earned cash on the line? That would take some guts. 

Though the Redskins have a new quarterback in Alex Smith, head coach Jay Gruden has been crystal clear the team is not in a rebuilding mode. Washington must win, now, this season, and a minimum goal should be a Wild Card playoff spot. 

How imperative is a 1,000-yard wide receiver to that goal? Let's look back at the past 12 NFC playoff teams. 

Only three of six NFL playoff teams in 2017 had a 1,000-yard wideout. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles did not, but the Vikings, Saints and Falcons all did. 

In 2016, however, five of six playoff teams had 1,000-yard receivers. The only team that didn't, the Cowboys, deployed a heavy run offense that resulted in Ezekiel Elliott going for more than 1,600 rush yards. 

Added together, in the past two seasons, eight of 12 NFC playoff teams had a receiver on their squad go at least four digits. 

One more note: the New England Patriots played in the last two Super Bowls, winning one and losing one. Both years they had at least one receiver get to 1,000 yards (Julian Edelman in 2016, Brandin Cooks in 2017). In 2017, tight end Rob Gronkowski broke the 1,000-yard mark too.

Again, what's the takeaway? Having a 1,000-yard receiver is certainly good, but it's not a must for a playoff berth or a deep playoff run. The Eagles proved that. 

On some teams, an elite wideout makes a huge difference. Watch Giants tape and it's clear what Odell Beckham does for the offense. Watch Falcons tape and Julio Jones does the same. 

On other teams, an elite quarterback makes a huge difference. Duh.  

Of the teams examined, the 2016 Packers came the closest to the 2017 Patriots with having two players go for over 1,000 yards.

2017 New England did it with Cooks (1,082) and Gronkowski (1,084), 2016 Green Bay almost got there with Jordy Nelson (1,257) and Davante Adams (997). 

While Gronkowski and Nelson are excellent players, the common denominator is obviously the elite play of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. 

For the 2018 Redskins, what does it mean?

The Redskins don't have an elite wideout like Jones or Beckham. The Redskins don't have an elite quarterback like Brady or Rodgers. 

The best path for Washington's offense might be balance, and trying to emulate the Eagles model from 2017. Carson Wentz played most of the season at an elite level, but he spread the ball around to a number of targets and leaned heavily on his tight ends. It helped that the Eagles ran the ball very well too. 

Could the 'Skins do something similar? Alex Smith is known to spread the ball around, and if Jordan Reed and Derrius Guice can produce this fall, the offenses might be similar. 

The answer can't be force enough balls to one wideout to ensure a 1,000 yard season. That won't work. 

There might be another way to consider. Of the three NFC teams that made the 2017 playoffs without a 1,000-yard wideout, two found a lot of success throwing to a running back.

The Panthers leading WR was Devin Funchess with 840 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey. 

The Rams leading WR was Cooper Kupp with 869 receiving yards. Their second best receiver? Running back Todd Gurley.

See a pattern?

Before breaking his leg in November, Chris Thompson had more than 500 receiving yards. He still finished as the team's fourth-leading receiver despite playing only 10 games. 

The offensive path to playoff success for Washington might not hinge on a true 1,000-yard wideout like it does for many teams. Full, healthy seasons from Jordan Reed or Chris Thompson could make up for deficiencies at other skill positions. It also remains possible Doctson, Crowder or Richardson make the four digit leap. 

Having a 1,000-yard receiver seems like a nice option for a good offense, and that's proven by nearly 70 percent of recent NFC playoff teams. Still, other paths remain to the postseason, and increased production at tight end and running back can go a long way. 

MORE REDSKINS NEWS:

— Contract years: Redskins face 5 tough decisions 

— Dead Money: Trades, misses and mistakes hurt Redskins salary cap

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