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Improvement On Special Teams Important To Success

A beleaguered group reached a new low Sunday when miscues led to a loss to the Cowboys, forcing players to address the issue and attempt to make corrections this week.


ASHBURN – A 10-year veteran who had no previous experience playing special teams in the NFL, linebacker Nick Barnett stood at the podium for a press conference shortly after signing with the Redskins in August and faced questions about his willingness to do so.


After a short while, Barnett broke out a nervous chuckle, seemingly doubting what he had signed up for.

“You guys trying to set me up?” Barnett said, laughing. “What’s going on over here?”

Barnett, who six weeks into the season has played a steady role on kickoff coverage, is one of a handful of players the Redskins have been trying to work into the rotation on special teams. That lack of continuity from last year is why some players believe the units have been struggling. Seven of the Redskins’ nine leading special-teams tacklers are no longer on the team, including the special teams captain the last three seasons, Lorenzo Alexander, who accepted a contract offer from the Cardinals during the offseason.

And, after the Redskins were sunk by special teams miscues in a 31-16 road loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, they signed two defensive players who are expected to play a greater role on coverage units than on defense.

“If you do look at, you know, the good special teams – there’s that one guy, two guys, three guys that have been doing it, have been together,” Barnett said Thursday. “They’ve been playing special teams and they play them and they excel at them. Then you get guys who adapt around them, just like any offense, defense, anything.”

Through five games, the Redskins are allowing 26.4 yards per kickoff return and 19.1 yards per punt return – marks that leave them 28th and last, respectively, among the 32 teams in the league.

On Sunday, Cowboys receiver Dwayne Harris became only the third player in league history to return a punt and a kickoff for more than 85 yards in the same game, and he was the first player to average more than 50 yards on punt and kickoff returns in a single game.

Harris wasn’t the only problem. The Redskins have also failed to find a reliable punt or kickoff returner, they’ve missed three of nine field goals this season, and 12 of their 38 penalties – nearly a third – have been on special teams.

“How do you fix it? I told the guys, it’s focus, it’s effort,” said strong safety Reed Doughty, who has been the unofficial special teams captain this season. “Any time you’re struggling, you have to heighten your attention to detail, heighten your focus, give extra effort and when those things start to turn around then you gain confidence. But until we do that, people are going to feel like they’re going to have a chance on us.”

Part of the issues come from the transition from special teams coordinator Danny Smith, who had been with the Redskins for nine seasons, to Keith Burns, who replaced Smith in February. There are small differences in the philosophy on punt coverage – a different stance on the line of scrimmage, for example, has led to a slower release downfield – but the Redskins’ kickoff coverage schemes have remained mostly the same.

“You go from Danny, who’s been here from Lord knows how long, to a new guy,” tight end Niles Paul said. “Everybody loves Danny, everybody trusted Danny. Now we got to go to a completely different special teams coach, so we got to trust in that now.”

Burns was not permitted by head coach Mike Shanahan to speak about any of his special teams units this week, but did admit two weeks ago, before the Redskins adjourned for their bye week, that the units needed to improve.

In an attempt to facilitate that process, Doughty plans to ask special teams players to stay late on Fridays to watch additional film. That should cut down on the mistakes, which will reduce the big plays, which will give the Redskins a better chance to win.

“Things are gonna happen,” Barnett said. “You just have to keep working, though, and hopefully hit that home run yourself.”

A version of this story appears in Friday’s edition of The Free Lance-Star.