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Thursday night failures
The Dallas Cowboys benefited from at least two special teams breakdowns early on Thursday night; first there was the Jamison Crowder fumble on a punt return (his 5th of the season!), and later, the punt return for a touchdown by the Cowboys, where Ryan Switzer ran 83 yards untouched for a touchdown.
A history of poor special teams performance
Unfortunately, these were not the first notable failures of the special teams unit this year. In fact, the special teams for Washington have been average or below average for several years now.
A lot of people were happy to see Danny Smith leave at the end of 2013 when it seemed that he’d lost his coaching mojo. But his replacement, Keith Burns, hired by Mike Shanahan, was a disaster. The Redskins special teams performance fell to new depths of awfulness.
When Shanahan was fired in 2014, Burns went away with him, and as far as I can tell, that marked the end of Burns’ NFL coaching career.
Gruden came in to replace Shanahan, and he hired Ben Kotwica from the Jets to be the special teams coordinator. My impression is that the special teams were not much better in 2014 than they’d been in 2013, but that they got a bit better each of the following two seasons. By 2016, I had the feeling that the Redskins special teams were about middle of the pack, and I was expecting them to make a jump into the top third of the league this season.
That didn’t happen. In fact, it feels to me as though the Special Teams units regressed this season. They simply haven’t played very well in 2017, and — even more than last season — they have been contributing to losses. That’s bad.
What’s even more concerning is that Jay Gruden doesn’t seem to be very concerned about the continued breakdowns, or the inability of his special teams coach to achieve consistent performance on the field. When asked about special teams on Friday — a day after the Cowboys game, after Jay had had time to review the film — he seemed largely unconcerned.
“Well last night, actually the last two times we’ve played Dallas, they had the blocked field goal that resulted in a touchdown at the end of the half, which killed us. And then last night we had a couple major FUBARs – the dropped punt, the punt return for touchdown, the kickoff return we might’ve been able to let out of bounds, we returned it, resulted in a concussion for Mo [Maurice Harris] – so there were three or four instances on special teams that, you know, wasn’t up to par for us.
But overall I think our special teams has been OK, we just haven’t had the splash plays on special teams, the momentum-changing plays that you look for on special teams. Especially in these close games, I think when you have as many close games as we’ve had, sometimes it’s a special team play that’ll put you over the top, we just haven’t had many of them. So we’ve just got to figure out ways to change the momentum on special teams that we haven’t done other than the New Orleans Saints fake punt there backed up.”
Jay’s focus is on the “splash” plays, and I understand that, but the issue is more concerning, I think, than just a failure achieve (or stop) a ‘splash’. The issue is that the Redskins have consistently been on the wrong side of poorly executed special teams plays. We’ve seen blocked field goals, shanked punts, blocked punts, muffed punts, fumbled returns, bad decisions on catching or not catching punts, returning or not returning kickoffs, and at least one really poor attempt at an onside kick. Meanwhile, the Redskins have had less than their fair share of blocks, forced fumbles and stops on trick plays.
I think it might be useful to look back through the 12 regular season games to remind ourselves about all the ordinary (non-splash) plays that have gone wrong — and we’ll look at the splash plays too.
Rather than going through the burdensome effort of reading 12 game logs, I’m going to use the expedient of reviewing the excellent Skins Stats & Snaps series written by James Dorsett.
Way's lone mistake came when he shanked his first punt of the game and watched as it went just 30 yards. The Eagles began their ensuing drive their own 44-yard line and scored on the third play of that drive.
Bashaud Breeland had returned just one kickoff (18 yards) in his 3-year career prior to Sunday's matchup against the Eagles. In this game, he returned three kickoffs for 59 yards (19.7 average). The problem was that Breeland only took two of those three returns out past the Washington 20. He took too long to decide on whether or not to take those returns out of the end zone and not hesitation cost the team field position.
After finishing 2016 ranked in the top-4 in punt return yardage and average, Jamison Crowder opened the 2017 season with what was one his worst career performances as a returner.
He took his two returns for just 3 yards and an average of 1.5 yards, his second lowest career yardage total and average (minimum 1 return).
Crowder muffed a punt and failed to recover it for just the third and second times in his career respectively. Philadelphia scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive.
He also chose not to fair catch a punt that Philly's special teamers wound up downing at the Washington 1-yard line.
Unfortunately, Moreau wasn't prepared for a Rams' fake-punt pass and he got beat by Josh Reynolds for a gain of 28 on fourth down. Jamison Crowder made the tackle on the play. The Rams would go on to score a game-tying field goal on that drive.
[Hopkins’] 51-yarder hit off the right upright and was no good. For his career, Hopkins has gone 59-for-64 inside 51 yards (92%) and 3-for-10 from 51 yards out and beyond (30%).
Three [kickoffs] were returned for 59 yards (19.7 average), two of which saw the Rams start with field position out past their 25-yard line.
Not only did Crowder post a mediocre average (5.8 yards), but he also muffed a punt and lost the fumble for the second time in his last three games. The fumble occurred at the Redskins own 18-yard line making it all the more costly. The Raiders scored their only touchdown of the game on their first play of the ensuing drive.
This game was a bright spot for the Redskins special teams, and Baushaud Breeland came in for some special attention and praise from James Dorsett:
The myriad of injuries sustained by the Skins' DBs again pressed Bashaud Breeland to earn his money, as he tied a season-high with 15 special teams snaps in the game. Breeland was on the field in some capacity for a whopping 91 total snaps on Monday night.
Kick Coverage- San Francisco’s only return in the game was a punt return that Trent Taylor took 39 yards and all the way out to midfield. Chris Carter and Mason Foster made the tackle on the return.
Tress Way- Taylor’s return turned Way’s 45.3 punting average into a 30.5-yard net average, the fourth lowest mark of his career.
Way also failed to pin the 49ers inside their own 20-yard line on the final drive of the game. He, instead, sailed the ball through the end zone for a touchback.
[Dustin Hopkins missed] an extra point for the first time since Week 14 of last season. That miss nearly cost the Skins the game....
Kickoff Returns- Chris Thompson took the team’s first kickoff return in over a month (last one was on 9/17 against the Rams) for a gain of 18 yards. The return was probably ill-advised though, as Thompson only made it out to the 19-yard line.
The Redskins rank dead last or tied for last in kickoff returns (6), kickoff returns yards (111) and long return (24). Their 18.5 return average ranks 30th. If Thompson had enough returns to qualify, his 17.3-yard return average would rank last among all qualifiers.
Punt Returns- In terms of pure return yardage and average (24 yards and 8.0 yards per return), this was Jamison Crowder’s best game of the year as a punt returner. However, his fumble at Washington’s own 14-yard washes away anything remotely positive that he did in this department.
This was the third game in which Crowder has fumbled a punt for the Redskins this season.
Both Crowder and the Redskins rank 24th in punt return yardage this year. He ranks 24th in return average (5.8 yards), while the team ranks 26th in this statistic. This has easily been Crowder’s worst year as a punt returner.
Overall Special Teams- The Redskins rank 23rd in special teams DVOA this year. The only thing that surprises me is that they aren’t ranked lower.
It all went wrong for Washington on a 36-yard field goal attempt, which if converted would have put the Redskins up by 9 (16 to 7) with 3 minutes left in the first half. Nick Sundberg’s snap was low, Way struggled to handle and place the ball and finally Rose kicked it low and the Cowboys blocked it.
The blocked kick would have been returned all the way for a touchdown if Morgan Moses hadn’t run over 80 yards down the field on two bum ankles to miraculously make a touchdown-saving tackle.
Unfortunately, Dallas scored a TD on the very next play and took a 1-point lead. Going from potentially taking a 9-point lead to trailing by 1 in a 20-second span was a disastrous turn of events for a depleted Redskins team that already needed luck on their side to win this game.
That play was essentially a 10-point swing in a contest where the scoring margin was within 7 points in the final minute of the game.
Not only did Rose miss on field goal, he missed an extra point with 4 minutes left in the game. This is not entirely shocking, considering that he’s missed at least one extra point in three of the last four years between college football and the NFL preseason.
Tress Way- Tress Way punted the ball a season-low three times for just 140 yards, which was another 2017 low.
His first punt was downed at Dallas’ own 9-yard line, but his next two kicks were returned for gains of 11 and 8 yards, respectively. Those drives started on the Dallas 43 and 37-yard lines.
Kickoff Returns- Chris Thompson doubled his season total of 3 kickoff returns by returning 3 kicks in this game alone. It didn’t go well for Thompson and the Redskins
CT did set new season highs in number of returns (3), return yardage (61), return average (20.3) and long return (22 yards); but his returns only got the Redskins out to the 21 (twice) and the 24-yard lines.
In fact, the Redskins have not been able to take a single one of their 9 kickoff returns this year out to or past the 25; so, ultimately, the team would’ve been better off if they just let everyone of their kickoffs go for touchbacks (i.e. take the automatic start at the 25).
When Thompson got close to the 25 on Sunday (24-yard line) he fumbled the ball and Dallas recovered. On the next drive, the Cowboys would make their second field goal in the last two minutes of game time and extend their lead to 7 points.
The Redskins have now fumbled on five kickoff or punt returns this season.
Punt Returns - Crowder actually tried to return the third and final Cowboys’ punt, but of course he muffed it at the 13-yard line and lost a yard on his only return in the game. That will do wonders for his sub-5.5 yard return average.
Special Teams Points Lost- Add up all the points the Redskins lost (4 points from the missed field goal and extra point) and gave to the Cowboys (10 points from the Dallas touchdown scored after the block and the field goal scored after Thompson’s fumble) on special teams and you have yourself a total of 14 points. That is exactly how many points the Cowboys won by on Sunday (33 to 19).
Tress Way- Prior to Sunday, Way’s season high for punts in a game was 5. He had 8 punts in this game, and as a result he posted new season highs in punts yards (320), net yards (275), punts returned (5) and return yards allowed (45). The increased opportunities certainly did not help his efficiency.
He averaged a season-low 40 yards per punt and his net average of 34.4 was his second worst mark of the year in this category. Three of his punts went for 32 or fewer yards and he only pinned Seattle inside their own 20-yard line on one or 12.5% of his eight punts. His previous season-low in this metric was 25%. Way also had one of his punts partially blocked.
The conditions were far from optimal, but all things considered, this still may have been worst game of any already-down season for Way.
Kelley and Perine each had one return on the day that went out to the Washington 22-yard line, and they gained 16 and 20 yards respectively on those returns.
The Redskins have still not taken a single return out past the 25-yard line this season.
The biggest impact on a Seattle punt may have actually come on a punt that Hall didn’t return. Hall chose not to fair catch John Ryan’s second punt and it rolled to the Redskins’ 6-yard line. Kirk Cousins was sacked in the end zone for a safety on the next play.
This wasn’t a particularly bad performance by the Redskins special teams, but that may be because it was an absolutely horrid day for the defense. To quote James Dorsett: “The Vikings were too busy scoring touchdowns, so they only punted the ball twice in the game.”
Two kicks were returned for gains of 32 and 25 yards. Those returns were taken out to the Minnesota 28 and 29-yard lines, respectively.
The 57 return yards was the second highest total the Redskins have given up this season, and the 28.5 yards allowed per return is their worst average of the year.
Special Teams Miscues- Stacy McGee was called for a false start on what would have been a 51-yard field goal attempt by Nick Rose. The coaches decided to punt the ball back to New Orleans instead of attempting a kick from 56 yards out.
Josh Holsey could have easily pinned the Saints at their own 1-yard line on the punt with 1:40 left in the first half. Instead, he unnecessarily stepped on the goal line and forced the touchback, which cost the Redskins 20 yards of field position. The Saints went on to kick a 29-yard field goal as time expired in the half.
That’s a 6-point swing in a game that would ultimately be decided by a field goal in overtime.
Overall, the Redskins’ coverage units were horrible on Sunday. The team allowed a season-worst 80 kickoff return yards and 118 total return yards. The previous highs allowed in those categories this season were 57 and 83 yards.
The Redskins did not return a single punt for the second consecutive week and for the third time this year.
Instead, Jamison Crowder fair caught punts at Washington’s 8 and 15-yard lines and chose to let the Saints down the other punt at the 6.
Special Teams Miscues- Pete Robertson could’ve downed a punt inside the 10-yard line too, but he caught the ball at the 7 and ran it into the end zone for a touchback. Quinton Dunbar was not pleased.
A.J. Francis’ face-mask infraction on a Byron Marshall return to the 23-yard line cost the Redskins field position; as did Josh Holsey’s holding penalty on another Marshall return. Holsey has committed a special teams penalty in three of the Redskins’ last five games.
Switzer and the Cowboys only had one other return in the game, but it was an absolute back-breaker for the Redskins.
Switzer fielded Tress Way’s next punt at the Dallas 17-yard line and forced missed tackles by Martrell Spaight, Chris Carter and Way en-route to an 83-yard return TD which put the Cowboys up by a score of 17-0.
Jamison Crowder only returned 1 of Chris Jones’ 5 punts, and the results were disastrous. Crowder gained 4 yards before fumbling the ball and turning it over to the Cowboys. That was Crowder’s league-worst sixth fumble of the year (among non-QBs), five of which have come on returns. Jones’ next punt was downed at the Redskins’ 1-yard line.
The Redskins struggled in this department, as well. The team returned 3 of Dan Bailey’s 7 kickoffs for 54 yards (18-yard average).
Maurice Harris missed a golden opportunity to set the offense up at the 40-yard line because he didn’t put his foot out of bounds when he fielded the ball. Instead, he returned the ball 13 yards to the Redskins’ 18-yard line.
Kendall Fuller muffed the first return of his career and the team’s final kickoff return of the night at the 13-yard line and failed to gain any yardage on the play.
Injuries take a toll
Jay Gruden, on Friday, seemed to write these failures off to injuries, and I understand that.
“Last night we had to dress eight offensive linemen and that takes away from somewhere. We only dressed three safeties and one of them is D Hall [DeAngelo Hall] who doesn’t do much on special teams. Then Mo Harris got hurt early in the game, which was going to be a special teams player for us. We were down to three receivers. So we were kind of short in a lot of departments there.
“Everett, who is starting at safety, is also playing all of special teams. Dunbar and Fabian [Moreau] played pretty well on special teams. Our outside backers have to perform better – Anderson, Carter and Junior doesn’t play special teams. So we were a little bit thin there.
Zach Vigil is starting at linebacker and had to play some special teams missed some time with an injury. So we were a little bit thin.”
The problem is that the special teams issues have been present all season long. Everyone expects the offense to perform despite the injuries; the same is true of the defense. Shouldn’t the special teams units be expected to perform as well?
I’ll let James Dorsett make the final argument on the Redskins Special Teams Coordinator:
Bye, bye Ben- If there is one Redskins coach that will probably be shown the door this offseason it’s special teams czar Ben Kotwica.
Washington’s special teams currently rank 23rd or worst in the following categories:
- kickoff return yards (24th),
- kickoff return average (25th),
- punt return yards (30th),
- punt return average (31st),
- fumbles (t-31st),
- punting average (23rd),
- net punting average (31st),
- punt return yards allowed (25th),
- punt return average allowed (31st)
- and special teams DVOA (24th).
What should be done about the special teams in 2018?
This poll is closed
Nothing different; what’s described here is normal for every team
Replace Kotwica with a talented special teams coach who knows what he’s doing
Clean house! The problems here start with the head coach, not the special teams coordinator