The Redskins special teams struggled during the first two weeks of pre-season, giving up two punt returns for touchdowns, missing extra points and field goals, and losing a potential punt return man to injury.
In the first real test on Thursday night in Atlanta, it appeared to be more of the same, as the Falcons ran a 4th down fake-punt play that succeeded in picking up the needed yardage for a first down.
Given that the Falcons Special Teams Coordinator is Ben Kotwica, who just left Washington after 5 years of working under Jay Gruden, it seemed like the ‘Skins former coach was getting a laugh at the expense of his former team.
It turned out to be the last time he would laugh all night.
The Redskins, from that point forward had the best of things when it comes to Special Teams, giving new ST coordinator Nate Kaczor bragging rights over Kotwica — for the rest of 2019 at least.
What went wrong for the Falcons or right for the Redskins?
The Falcons long time kicker, Matt Bryant, was released by the Falcons after ten seasons with the team. His replacement, Giorgio Tavecchio, doesn’t seem to be living up to his new nickname, “Italian Ice”.
The left-footed kicker was signed by the Falcons last season when Bryant was injured, but he has struggled this pre-season.
Against the Redskins, he missed his only field goal try of the game, bringing his preseason total to 4/8. Ouch.
The Redskins place kicker, by contrast, was perfect on Thursday night, making his only PAT attempt and kicking a perfect 4/4 on field goals, with a long of 48 yards.
Hopkins is 5 out of 6 on FG attempts in preseason, and 3 of 4 on extra points. Both misses came in a bad outing against the Bengals at home a week ago.
On kickoffs, Hopkins used his powerful leg to force 5 touchbacks on kickoffs. On the only kickoff return of the night, the Falcons got the ball out only to the 22 yard line.
Tress Way and the punt coverage team
It was a banner night for the punting unit, with two turnovers on recovered fumbles. Two different return men for the Falcons muffed punts, with possession going to the Redskins after recovery. In both cases, Robert Davis was the first guy in a white & burgundy jersey on the scene, though in the first case, the ball squirted between his legs and was recovered by Troy Apke. Blind squirrels.
The Falcons announcers on the broadcast feed I was watching talked at length about the roof of the domed stadium and how distracting it is for punt returners.
They showed lots of pictures during the broadcast of the returners and Ben Kotwica pointing up at that horrible roof while Dan Quinn gazed distractedly at it.
What I noticed was that Greg Stroman cleanly fielded 3 punts, returning one of them for 10 yards, while Cam Sims cleanly caught two more. The roof didn’t seem too distracting for either young player on those 5 Atlanta punts.
Tress Way only punted three times in the Falcons game. Two of those punts ended in fumble recoveries for the Redskins. The third was a 52-yard punt that ended in a touchback, for a net of 32 yards.
After punting about 4 or 5 times per game for a full 16-game season in 2018 without a single touchback, this was Tress Way’s third preseason game with a touchback in each game, placing the ball at the opponent’s 20-yard line. This is normal for an NFL punter, but a step backwards for Way, who was a key part of the field position battle that the Redskins won so often in 2018.
The kickoff returns were probably the only problem area for the Redskins aside from the Falcons’ successful fake punt. The Falcons only kicked off twice — once following their touchdown and the other to start the second half. Marshall returned both kicks, getting to the 18-yard line on both returns.
The special teams performance against the Falcons wasn’t flawless, but it was solid, and it represented a huge step forward from what was on display in the first two preseason games.
The Redskins’ road trip to Philadelphia to open the season on September 8th is looming, and this outing against the Falcons gave me a bit of comfort that special teams isn’t necessarily the disaster-in-waiting that it appeared to be at the end of the game against the Bengals.
Now, if we could just do something about the left side of the offensive line...