The changes to the Washington Redskins special teams unit has flown stealthily under the radar this offseason as much of the focus centered on two major storylines—the return of quarterback Robert Griffin III following total reconstructive surgery to his right knee and improving the much-maligned defensive secondary.
This downplayed scenario comes despite a dramatic alteration to a collection of players whose name alone, “special teams,” denotes their high value and distinct purpose.
Gone from the team is not only their coach of nine years, Danny Smith, who accepted a similar role with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but last season’s leading tackler, co-captain and Pro Bowl linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals.
With the loss of Coach Smith, the team selected former Denver Broncos special teams standout Keith Burns, who also spent six seasons with Denver as an assistant special teams coach.
In 2012, the Broncos special teams coverage unit ranked second in the NFL in punt coverage and seventh in kickoff coverage.
With this change, according to Paul, the Redskins will have four “people coming in hot to the ball making the play” instead of the two they had last season.
“It’s different rules,” Paul said. “You’re in different areas. Now I have the freedom to kind of roam, so I’m loving that one.”
Paul was not only a special teams coverage tackling leader in 2012 but also replaced former Redskins kickoff returner Brandon Banks toward the end of last year. He averaged 21.8 yards per return, and ESPN.com projects Paul as the starting kickoff returner and Richard Crawford as the team’s starting punt returner this season.
The Redskins may look to new talent to complement the newfound roles of Paul and Crawford.
Undrafted free agent wide receiver Skye Dawson could make a significant impact as a punt return specialist should he make the final 53-man roster. During his senior year at Texas Christian University, Dawson averaged 9.4 yards per punt return and 22.5 yards per kickoff return.
An additional threat is undrafted free agent Nick Williams out of the University of Connecticut. Williams, a wide receiver, ranked first in the country in kickoff returns as a sophomore in 2010, averaging 35 yards per return. He holds the UConn school record in kickoff yards per return average with 28.3.
In the same Washington Times article, safety Reed Doughty singled out the significance and impact of Alexander and how the 2013 squad will move forward in his absence.
“From my perspective, he was a one-man wrecking crew,” Doughty said. “He would make some absolute outstanding plays. (However) we’ve got some players, I think, that are ready to step up and take a dominant role.”
Doughty also felt the loss could also be a gain for the special teams. “Maybe it’ll just be more of a team thing,” Doughty stated. “You might not see one person standing out, but I think we’ve all got each other’s back.”
The task of finding anyone who can replace Alexander is monumental as he proved to be not only an exceptional player on the field—leading the NFL in special teams tackles in 2012—but also a motivational and inspirational leader throughout his six-year career with the Redskins.
Alexander was able lead the NFL in special teams tackles even as opponents double-teamed him on a routine basis.
One thing is for certain with regard to the special teams play for the upcoming season. In order for them to truly be “special,” there needs to be widespread improvements and adjustments as the team ranked 27th in NFL special teams, according to Football Outsiders.
Outside of Alexander leading the league in special teams tackles, the bright spot of last season was kicker Kai Forbath and his streak of 17 consecutive field goals, an NFL record to start a career.
He would finish the season 17-of-18, an astounding 94 percent, and 12-of-12 from 40-plus yards. Forbath did not play until Week 6, replacing outgoing kicker Billy Cundiff who converted just 7-of-12 field-goal attempts through five games.
To its credit, last season's special teams coverage unit did not allow a punt or kickoff return for a touchdown. However, the Redskins have not returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown for the past two seasons.
With the expected return of kicker Forbath, as well as punter Sav Rocca and long snapper Nick Sundberg, the remaining positions on special teams will likely be finalized following training camp and preseason.
Among those players most likely to return on special teams are safety Reed Doughty and tight end Niles Paul, who finished the 2012 season as the Redskins' second- and third-leading tacklers on special teams behind Alexander.
Doughty has seniority on the Redskins special teams unit and will likely be named the special teams captain this season, replacing Alexander. Other special teams players who should return are linebackers Perry Riley, Chris Wilson and Bryan Kehl, along with safety DeJon Gomes.
With the guidance and direction of Coach Burns, combined with his personal experience as a special teams player and assistant coach, the Redskins stand to benefit from proven successes he enjoyed in 20 years in the NFL.
Add to that the return of nearly all of the players on last year's coverage unit, continued success in the kicking game and the prospect of new talent emerging from return specialists, and the upcoming season will hopefully bring about better results statistically.
While special teams are mostly judged by individual achievements, the upcoming season may bring about better changes and improvements if the coverage team remembers something Lorenzo Alexander said in a Washington Post interview with Mark Maske and Mike Jones last year after the Redskins had two punts blocked in the first two games.
“We need to block first and we can’t cover nothing if there ain’t no punt.”
Unless otherwise noted, statistics provided by ESPN.com.