In 2018, the Redskins focus on special teams seemed to pay off, and the very good ST performance was part of the winning formula that saw the team win 6 of its first 9 games. At the end of the season, however, Ben Kotwica, the special teams coach, decided to leave Washington, going to work for the Atlanta Falcons. The move was apparently Kotwica’s decision.
His replacement is Nate Kaczor, who spent his previous three seasons coaching — where else? — in Tampa Bay.
Here in Washington, Kaczor has a lot of young players to work with, but he’s got an established set of special teams specialists in kicker Dustin Hopkins, punter Tress Way, and long snapper Nick Sundberg (the other long snapper who was in camp, Andrew East, was released prior to the start of preseason games).
Given the outstanding perfromance from Tress Way last season, and the solid kicking of Hopkins along with Sundberg’s history of reliable performance, I think it’s fair to say that there was an expectation that Kaczor should be able to field at least an average NFL unit in 2019, if not above-average. The team had, after all, drafted a special teams “ace” in Terry McLaurin, and the depth players on the roster seem to offer plenty of speed and tackling ability.
Whatever the regular season may still hold in store for the Redskins special teams, the first two preseason games have not been good.
At home against the Bengals this week, it was obvious that something was wrong with the placekicking mechanics, as Hopkins first missed an extra point, hooking it wide left, and later hit a line-drive on a field goal attempt that was straight down the middle but went under the crossbar. The missed extra point was obviously attributable to a bad snap, as the ball hit the ground near the holder’s thigh — Tress Way handled the snap and got it in place, but the rhythm of the 3-man execution was clearly off. I was a little less sure about the field goal attempt; the snap didn’t look perfect, but I’m not sure whether the primary problem was with Sundberg or if Hopkins simply got his boot into the ball awkwardly. In any event, the resulting field goal miss was ugly.
One of the few special teams highlights of the first half of the preseason was a pair of returns by Shaun Wilson against Cincinnati. Unfortunately, Wilson was injured while playing as part of the punt coverage unit in the second half, and ended up being carted off the field.
Related: Shaun Wilson looked like a pretty good punt returner against the Bengals, right up until he got injured
Tress Way, who did not have a single punt go into the end zone for a touchback in 2018, while repeatedly pinning opponents inside the 20, 15 or even 10 yard lines with his punts, simply hasn’t performed to the same standard in preseason so far.
Against the Browns, he had 6 punts:
- 39 yards to the CLE 26 - 9 yard return
- 52 yards to the CLE 27 - 8 yard return
- 52 yards to the CLE 26 - no return
- 56 yards to the CLE 24 - 12 yard return
- 55 yards (touchback) - ball placed at 20-yard line
- 55 yards to the CLE 14 - returned 86 yards for a touchdown
This isn’t winning the field position battle in the way that the Redskins were able to do for most of the 2018 season. Discounting the TD return, the Bengals had average starting field position at the 30-yard line. Of course, that’s not all on Way; after all, he has 5 punts that traveled at least 52 yards in the air. If he’s forced to punt from deep in his own territory, that’s due to offensive breakdowns. Likewise, the returns of 8, 9, 12, and 86 yards indicate issues with punt coverage - or, perhaps, that Way is out-kicking his coverage. These are more issues for the offensive coordinator and Kaczor to work on.
But still, at least two of Tress Way’s punts against the Browns were sub-standard. The first, a 36-yarder that ended up as a net 30-yard punt, wasn’t good. Also, the 55-yard touchback ends up as a net 35-yard effort.
Tress Way had a slightly better outing against Cincinnati this week, with 7 punts:
- 36 yards to the Bengals 7 - no return
- 57 yards (touchback) - ball placed at 20-yard line
- 50 yards to the Bengals 24 - no gain on return
- 64 yards to Bengals 3 - 10 yard return
- 69 yards to Bengals 15 - 37 yard return
- 41 yards to Bengals 23 - 6 yard return
- 55 yards to Bengals 25 - returned 75 yards for a touchdown
The first, third and fourth punts had good results for Way, but the touchback turned into a net 37 yard punt, and the last three punts of the day were net 32 yards, net 35 yards, and Bengals TD.
Overall, the results of the punting game in these two games show that Tress Way has a little work to do to recover his 2018 form, and the punt coverage of the Redskins needs a ton of work to be ready for the regular season, which is just three weeks away
Special teams play during pre-season is not a finished product; many of the players on the field will not make the regular season roster. Still, it is a bit troubling that punt coverage team in particular has allowed opponents to return the ball effectively, scoring two touchdowns in 13 plays.
Most troubling is that Tress Way seems to have lost a bit of the ‘magic’ that made him the People’s Choice for 2018 Redskins MVP, and that something was clearly broken in the placekicking operation against the Bengals.
Nate Kaczor has about 21 days to figure it all out. The Eagles will provide a stiff test.
Nate Kaczor is not economical with his words. He was made available for a press conference on 11 June, and he had a lot to say.
Here is the full transcript of his press conference:
On WR Terry McLaurin’s skills as a specialist:
“Very good question, so, three of the most important traits playing special teams: smart, tough and very fast. That checks the first three boxes and he’s got all of that. So, what we’re finding out with Terry is his play, obviously, covering all three of those traits at any level and running 4.3, being that speed we’re talking about, we’re just teaching him every position that he could possibly play.
You really with a player like that almost have to save him from himself because he’ll just keep going and going and going and he only has one speed. So really with a player like that, that works so hard and is so blue collar and talented, you just have to really pace him and only use him where needed. When he’s on the learning curve right now he’s probably getting a little more work than he normally will because he’s getting obviously a good amount of reps on offense as well. But, really with a player like that you just got to make sure they’re not overdoing it because they’re doing anything you ask, any you want to do it. They’re just special people and he’s certainly one of those.”
On how his system compares to others in the league:
“So, I think Jay [Gruden] said this the other day, most of our systems there’s a lot of carry over. Really what we’re working on is the fundamentals and we teach our fundamentals through drills. So, anytime that we watch video we want the drills we’re doing on the field to actually show up in a game. You’d be surprised that there are people that work on drills that don’t show up in a game much. There may be a year where a certain drill doesn’t show up or the situation doesn’t come up, but really there’s a lot of carry over. Just teaching our language of our fundamentals through our drill work, that’s really the only learning curve. What the guys are going through.
I know most of the coaches in the NFL and probably the difference in all of us is probably going to be personality. If you go by the rule of thirds, if I’m here and I go somewhere else as soon as I get there a third of the guys are going to like me and a third of the guys won’t care and a third probably won’t. So, with that being said you’ve got to be who you are. I am a believer in as you grow in coaching and trying to build bridges to players – I know that’s more talked about in the last few years, not only in coaching but in the business world with all the public speakers and motivating and social media, and I can get on and listen to any motivational speaker I want that spoke at IBM or other big companies and take all his quotes. So, with these players and kids today getting exposed to all those good motivational speakers nonstop, you got to challenge yourself as a coach to be pretty good from a personality standpoint and challenge yourself to build bridges to these guys.
So, I would say that that’s what would be the difference in most of the coaches and our systems are going to be fairly similar. So there’s a lot of carry over and I’m just trying to stay within my personality and coach through that.”
On the drill involving soccer balls:
“That was a punt-block drill and if I were a punter I would be getting cut right now by [president] Bruce [Allen] because I got 68 punts blocked in a five-minute period. Either we got to get some new protectors or I got to get a faster operation time. That was a punt-block circuit where we work on finding the block point. Actually, you’d be surprised when you see players that work free in a rush and no one’s touching them and they still miss. A lot of that is merely having your hands properly positioned and targeting the ball in the proper way and that’s what we worked on in that drill.”
On where he got the drill:
“That’s a drill that’s actually been around a long time. One of the twists that we do on it is we have the guys lead from different angles to the block point. A lot of people do that too,
I’m just saying they need to learn that if they are approaching from a wider angle as opposed to right up the middle of the formation that you’re going to approach the punter in a different manner. Really what happens is, and talking about drills, you can work drills and cementing that in their head because in special teams you’re teaching a player how to play four different positions. Not just running back or receiver or DB. Those guys do what they call their ‘every day drills’ all the time. Well, we can’t do that because we have to get in punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return. Those guys are playing four spots.
So with a drill like that, showing game clips and doing that where you can reference it because you can’t really do it enough to make rope memory or muscle memory, so you really have to hammer it in. That’s why a drill is such a great picture to communicate with the players. So, I’m going to refer to that drill a lot so we’re playing the preseason game and someone comes free then I’ll say, ‘That’s like that drill we did with the soccer balls and the volleyballs.’ You approach from the c-gap, take this angle, put your hands like this and imagine me sitting there. Unfortunately, that guy back there in the preseason’s going to be better than me.”
On how they can improve the return game:
“Yes, well so much of the return game and I know you all know this stuff but you asked the question, so the return game has a lot to do with the person back there because there are people that are gifted and you don’t block a soul and they catch it and get yards. There are people that make great decisions, there are people that are conservative and only catch the ball and return it when they have a lot of room and fair catch it anytime someone’s close. So, even the returnable punts that they catch vary, so it starts with that guy.
You could have an aggressive guy that might get tackled for a zero gain because he was taking a chance and the very next time he does it, that first guy misses him and then he goes for 40 [yards] and you were chewing him out on the one before for not fair catching it. So, some of those guys that are a little bit of risk-takers are pretty good returners too and the conservative guys can be as well. So, it starts with that person. You’ve got to catch the punt first and make a good decision – then the blocking.
You could and this is something that you have to sell the players on this in my shoes, if you guys were my punt return team and we have this great scheme and we’re going to do this and you’re selling everyone on that scheme and you go out and play someone and they hit you five punts that hang five seconds and are 45 yards, you’re fair catching every single one of those. If we’re on offense and I want to run power, I want to run wide zone, I’m going to call it. If they blitz then we’re going to have an RPO or a check or something like that. But, in the kickoff and punt return game you get what you get when in terms of the kick.
So matching all of that stuff up is a challenge, and that’s why when you’re in our position as special teams coach is getting those guys to keep busting their butt and keep blocking and keep believing so when you get that low hang time punt in the middle of the field, hopefully you’ve got the right call on them. So, that’s the challenge of that is really matching up the blocking with a good returner. The better the punt returner is, it makes the blocking better.”
On how much input he had during the draft:
“What we do here is that I do a lot of our work in the train station interviews because a lot of the train station or the informals, a lot of those guys are more of the special teams players. The top picks, those types of guys and you’d have to talk to the personnel guys about how they choose the guys they’re going to interview, but if it happens to be a really high pick then my input on him isn’t going to be maybe as important or listened to as maybe a down the road player.
I’m not necessarily talking about how we do it with the Redskins, but just over the years I’ve done a lot of my work in the informal interviews and then a guy like Terry who could be a higher pick, I’m going to eventually bump into him or our personnel guys may have me interview him on my own that way I don’t need to be in the formal interviews in the hotel unless they want me in there. I can get more work done behind the scenes so to speak.”
On if it helps his job to enter camp without a competition at place kicker or punter:
“Yes, so when you have specialists that are in place and talented like ours are it -- continuity, everyone loves continuity with talent. The only time you wouldn’t enjoy continuity is if you thought you needed to improve your talent level, but obviously those guys both are very, very talented and everyone also has stuff they can get better at and that’s what they’re working on. But both are… I have been very impressed with their professionalism. They both, you would categorize both of those guys as workers. They are very blue collar and you have to say, whoa instead of go with them too which is a good thing. But, for the most part when you have specialists that are talented in place then yes, that is a good thing.”
On balancing McLaurin’s workload on special teams:
“Well that is a very good question. There was a lady one time that asked me on a Sunday, ‘What do you do during the week?’ Like she thought we just showed up for games on Sunday, so I’m prefacing the answer with that. So during practice for example when I’m not working with the specialists we are observing, watching players, watching their movement patterns this time year certainly evaluating the roster, so if the personnel department or Jay has a question, ‘What do you think of this guy?’ We’d be prepared to answer in terms of, ‘We like the way he moves.’ Or, ‘He doesn’t change direction like we want.’
So, what do I do when I’m not working with the specialists is evaluate those guys. So I literally sit there and if I’m watching Terry McLaurin for example, run a whole bunch of routes, deep post routes right before the kickoff return period then I need to monitor like, ‘Hey Terry get back here and watch.’ And maybe not give him the first couple, so literally and physically monitor him. You’ve got to observe and just watch and that’s a great question because if I’m oblivious to how much he’s getting then that’s not good for him either and for example, not talking about Terry but I was more referencing that type of player that is such a blue collar hard worker and managing them and I said Terry fell in that category. But, let’s say a guy like Terry was a backup and the period before a special teams period the starter hurt his ankle or something and all of a sudden he is getting every single rep. I need to be aware of that, so watching is a way to do that.”
On which players have stood out to him on special teams during the offseason program:
“Yeah, watching the 53 [man roster] and I’m not even trying to be funny here, but what you guys are doing over there I’m doing the exact same thing. Obviously I get communicated with by anyone from personnel or Jay, ‘Hey what do you think of this guy? Let’s keep an eye on him.’ We may move someone up a depth chart. If I start getting the sense that we’re really liking this guy then I need to get him up here and get a more urgent evaluation on him so that’s an ongoing process.
But probably with where I’m at [evaluating] these guys it would be unfair for me to single anybody out. Any of the guys that have played well here last year that would stand out certainly are still standing out. A new person that has been a really good professional and I don’t know how much special teams he will play, but he is certainly battling for a spot would be a guy like Jon Bostic who has not been around here, but he has been a real professional. He would be a guy and I’m sure when you talk to the defensive coaches or Jay or someone in personnel that Jon was brought in here to compete, so he would certainly be in that area. He is someone that’s new to all of you folks, but he’s doing a nice job and like I said, the draft picks that you would expect, their DNA and you’ve heard it from the pundits before the draft and our people after the draft.
All of those guys are doing [well] there is just a big learning curve with them. I can’t really single a bunch of people out, but Jon would just be one that is new that you guys probably don’t have a lot of data on right now that is doing a nice job and just being a good pro.”