Heading into Week 10 of the 2008 NFL regular season, the Washington Redskins have the weekend off. Following a drubbing from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night, the Redskins enter their bye with many questions that need answering. I have gathered some of B/R's best Washington Redskins contributors to take a closer look at the team and offer a few answers of their own.
***Note: This Week's RoundTable had already been completed when the Washington Redskins signed free agent cornerback DeAngelo Hall. I was not able to include any thoughts from our writers, and apologize.
I hope everyone finds this week's Roundtable informative, thought provoking, and at least little fun. I appreciate any feedback, positive or negative, or anything in between.
On to the questions!
The question: Special teams play has been a disappointment up to this point. Is this all on Danny Smith (his job in jeopardy) or is it just the mix of so many youngsters on the roster? Or is it something else entirely? Should Moss continue to be used on punt returns?
Ian Murphy: Ian doesn't see this as a major issue and is squarely behind Danny Smith:
Really it's only the punt team that hasn't been stellar this year.
Kick coverage, field goals, kickoff and punt return have done a decent job, although you would have to admit not incredible. Durant Brooks has to take a lot of blame for the punt team, and Danny Smith needs to take responsibility for trusting such an important job (yes, punter is important, even though the position of punter is deeply disrespected by the average fan) to such an inexperienced player.
I think there is a good reason why Punters can play into their 40s. Ice in your veins is far more valuable than huge quadriceps (wearing a watch seems to help too: big ups Reggie Roby).
Danny Smith has had some very special, special teams as a coach in the NFL. In Philly, from '95 to '98, his return teams averaged more than 20 yards/KR and had at least one TD. Tom Hutton was a 23-year-old rookie punter that year (which probably gave him the courage to start Durant Brooks) and in his four years under Smith, he would be top 10 in the league in punt yards and never average less than 41 yards/punt.
After Smith left for Detroit in 1999, Hutton would play one more year with Miami and then would be out of the league. Smith certainly get the most out of his guys; however, his coverage teams did allow five TDs to be scored in that four-year span.
In Detroit, where he coached his next two years alongside his current boss, Jim Zorn, he would coach powerhouse returners Terry Fair and Desmond Howard. Both Fair and Howard would average more than 10 yards/PR and 23 yards/KR. Howard would go to the Pro Bowl as a return specialist, averaging a whopping 14.7 yards/PR and 24.6 yards/KR. Kicker Jason Hanson would also make the Pro Bowl in Smith's first year in the Motor City.
During his time in Buffalo, under Gregg Williams, his coverage teams didn't allow one return for a touchdown in three years. His return teams would have been even better had Williams allowed Nate Clements to continue to return punts after averaging more than 20 yards/PR in 2001. A year after Williams left, Clements (PR) and McGee (KR) would both make the Pro Bowl.
In Washington, Smith actually got better production from his return teams than ever before. In five years, Smith's primary kick returner has never averaged less than 24 yards/KR (See: Desmond Howard's Pro-Bowl year). Also, if you take out the two horrible punts by Durant Brooks to DeSean Jackson and Reggie Bush (game-changing talents, to be fair) his teams have allowed just one return for a TD in the last four years.
Finally, this guy was hand picked by Joe Gibbs and had a seven-year span in his career as a coach where his players didn't allow a touchdown on a return. I am more likely to point blame at the players on this one.
Nikolas Scalise (Founder ProvenPlays): Nik has concerns and offers some statistical evidence to back it up:
Punting Defense(coverage units)
31.7 (32nd) Avg Net Yards, meaning, avg yards after punt return.
42 (10th) avg yards per punt
13 (30th) avg return yards against
2 (second) returned TD against. 'Skins are one of six teams to have punt returned against and the Vikings have surrendered three.
One of two teams to allow two or more blocked punts this year
MAJOR PROBLEM: Top 10 in punt average, including the issues we had with Rookie kicker but we CANNOT get down field and tackle. LAST in the NFL in net punt yards is NOT good. For a team with such good defense this is unacceptable. We are on the bottom—worse than the Bengals and Saints, who play NO defense.
8.9 (21st) avg yards per return.
29 (1st) in punt return attempts with 11 fair catches.
One of six teams with a punt returned for TD.
Moss two attempts, Avg 44 yards and TD.
CONCERNING: With the most attempts to return punts because of great defense, being in the bottom third is not good enough. If Randle El cannot produce, it is worth using Santana, since that is a skill he has been able to demonstrate his whole career and this year, for two attempts, he is the best in the league.
Kick Returns Defense(coverage units)
GREAT: How is it that we can run further and get the job done on kickoffs??
Kick-Returns Offense(return units)
24.2 (9th) Avg Kick return yards
SOLID: Not much deviation in these stats.
20-29 (4/4), 30-39 (5-7), 40-49 (8/9) and 50+ (1/3)
SOLID: He is not a top tier kicker yet, but he has proven to make kicks when we need them. He is a keeper in my opinion. Leg strength continues to be an issue.
Danny Smith has been with the 'Skins since 2004 and does have great sense of energy for these groups. In 2007, the Redskins were one of the best in the league, ranking third in kickoff coverage and sixth on punt returns (6.8) yards.
We are nearly doubling the yardage on punt returns, so that is where the work needs to be done, ASAP. I like Danny and think he can turn this ship around, but he has to do it NOW.
Eric Moon: While Eric is concerned, he doesn't see a need for major changes:
The special teams play has been a disappointment, and it starts from the coach down to the players not executing properly. Poor tackling and, I believe, overall team speed on the unit is not good. Moss definitely should get more touches on punt returns. And Smith needs to make a change from Randle El on punt returns—6.3 avg. is just not getting the job done. Maybe give it to Rock and spring Moss back there at least once or twice a game.
Next Question -->
The question: The offense has gotten a bit stagnant over the last several games, losing the incredible balance that existed through the Philadelphia win. Can Zorn get this back on track, or was this change a matter of the true capabilities of the team?
Jen Johnson: Jen sees the Redskins' offensive woes of late as being directly related to the passing game:
The pass protection has been poor, and instead of getting better as the game goes along, the line turns into Swiss cheese. It's as if the front four is infected with some strange ole disease. Jason's not a puppet, gentlemen. He will get hurt if he takes the shots that he took from Pittsburgh, which spells disaster if we don't keep him upright. My two cents on a solution to this problem:
Have Jason set up the offense from the shotgun early rather than later.
Jim and Buges must recognize when the O-line can't protect Jason when's he under center. Against a fast defense, the pass blockers have to pick up blitzes much quicker, and Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels aren't the most athletic guys on the roster.
Jim Zorn has to let Campbell loose. Throw the ball downfield for goodness sakes. Jason can step up in the pocket to avoid the rush and let it rip. Cooley is still being used too sparingly, which makes my blood boil, because he's our yards-after-the-catch man.
Yes, he's dropped a few catchable balls, but he's a serious weapon that gets lost when we choose to run on the first two downs and pass on third down out of necessity.
Nikolas Scalise (Founder ProvenPlays): Nik, however, thinks it might be related to the rest of the league catching up to Zorn:
The 'Skins have turned into a run-first offense and rightfully so, considering Portis' numbers. The offensive line is dedicated to run blocking and has not been so hot in pass protection. The NFL is very a smart league, and I think they have caught on to the 'Skins and how we approach the game.
Zorn is going to have to open the book and get creative, like he did early on, in order for the 'Skins to make a real push for the playoffs. I do not care about the NFC East games coming through FedEx, we still have to win them, and with Santana not 100 percent and the offensive line underachieving lately, I am concerned. I will give them a break on Monday night, the Pitt defense is incredible!
Eric Moon: Eric seems to agree with both Nik and Jen:
I believe Zorn is too conservative at times. I believe the league is starting to figure out his tendencies, so the bye week comes at a great time to figure out how to change things up. This offense needs to throw downfield a bit more, in order to keep eight guys out of the box against Portis.
Also, when facing a team like the Steelers, their linebackers exploited our tackles, which may be a reason why Zorn originally started Heyer, for a little more quickness.
The question: Is it time to start pushing the rookies on offense? Why/Why not? What's the upside and downside?
Jen Johnson: Jen doesn't see much need for the rookies to contribute at this point, but does seem to think Zorn needs to progress forward:
The Redskins' rookies aren't really being asked to do too much, and frankly, with the offense we run, we don't need to utilize Devin Thomas or Fred Davis. Should we be doing more with them? I don't think we need to abandon the deep ball to Moss in favor of short screen passes to Davis or seven-yard throws to the sidelines to Thomas.
It's been documented that coaches have at least 10 set offensive plays they want to run in each game. These plays are designed to exploit the opponent's weaknesses while enhancing our ability to keep drives alive. Moving the ball and controlling time of possession have been our trademarks through the first nine games.
We need to pass on running downs and run on passing downs. Confuse the defense, especially against faster, more physical players.
Execution has been the ultimate problem in recent weeks. We should be leading the league in field-goal tries by now. Suisham is a good, but not great, kicker. He continues to have to make 40+ yard kicks, and that means we can't score once we get the ball in the red zone.
Let the rookies work hard in practice and learn how to run routes from the masters.
Nikolas Scalise (Founder Provenplays): Nik doesn't see a major problem with the way the rookies are coming along:
We clearly still have problem at WR, just like we did before the season began. Although we drafted good players, the West Coast is an offense that takes time to learn on all parts. We are still young as a TEAM in this offense, so I still think it is too early to panic on their ability to execute.
Devin is getting more involved lately, they just need to key on him more and provide him opportunities to make plays. On special teams, he is a beast and doing what it takes to succeed in the NFL.
Eric Moon: Eric seems to see a real need:
Kelly being hurt has really hurt his chances; hopefully he can get healthy and contribute at the end of the season. He’s our tallest receiver, so we could use him in the red zone.
I would like to see a bit more of Davis to see what he can do. And I think we could utilize Thomas’ speed more on offense to stretch the D. We drafted these kids in the second round, and they should be producing for us more. If we’re not using them, the downside is we may have wasted the choices that we could have used on other areas of need.
Next Question -->
The question: Is Blache getting all he can out of the D-line for pass rushes? Does he need to blitz more or continue playing coverage packages? Will Jason Taylor coming back healthy really be able to make a difference?
Nikolas Scalise (Founder Provenplays): Nik sees no significant issues from the defense:
Recently, I do not think he is comfortable pushing blitz packages, at least not with the injuries we have in the secondary. Torrence is still learning, and until he is comfortable with with the ONE-on-ONE matchups, you will not see it. D-line needs to step up and get to the QB on their own.
That being said, we have played a bunch of teams with good offensive lines and the one that was weak, Pitt, we were able to get some sacks. I like the defense, it ain't broke, so no major fixes are needed, in my opinion.
Eric Moon: Eric sees room for improvement, but feels they are getting it done:
I would like to see more blitzes from the defense. Our corners, at times, play too far off the ball in my opinion, tighter coverage on that play with Holmes and no way he scores the TD, might not even get thrown to on that play.
Jason Taylor needs to sit out until he is fully recovered. He is hurting the team more than helping trying to be out there at 60 to 70 percent healthy. IF he sits out a few weeks, I think he could be a factor down the stretch. But, to me, overall, the D-line has done as well as possible w/o Daniels there and Taylor injured.
Next Question -->
The question: And finally, the bye came late, but the 'Skins fared relatively well all the way up until Monday night (they hadn't been playing all that well, but they still got wins), will the bye week really help much, and what do you expect to see when they return?
Nikolas Scalise (Founder Provenplays): Nik is confident:
I think it is a GREAT bye week. The Dallas game is HUGE, just HUGE. This will help keep Dallas as the doormat of the NFC East and another divisional win for us. At 6-3 into the bye to prepare for second-half surge, what else can you really ask for? Like to have the Rams game back, yes, but who would of thought we would have two road wins in the division this early.
I am still confident and look for Zorn to be coach of the year!
Eric Moon: Eric seems a bit torn:
I think it will refresh them a bit. To know they are winning and not playing all that well is a bit scary. Just think if they can start clicking on all cylinders—the outcome will be tremendous. I’m looking for them to probably finish the last seven games 5-2. If they could go 6-1, they might win the division. Will be tough three home games with the division foes, and two trips to the West Coast will be a very interesting ride.
I want to thank each of our participants. They provided some great insight. I would also like to apologize to anyone who was not able to be a part this week's meeting. If anyone is interested in joining in for the Week 11 Roundtable (Dallas Week People!), please email me as soon as possible, so I can get you on the list.
If there are any Dallas Cowboys writers who would like to be involved for next week's Roundtable, you will be welcome. I am sure we can get something good from it!