There is a vast array of criticisms that could be leveled against the play and coaching of the Washington Commanders yesterday, but in the interest of not writing a novella, I’ll focus on just one area: Special Teams.
From beginning to end, the special teams’ gaffes were numerous against the Lions, and frankly, more pronounced than I can recall in coordinator Nate Kaczor’s time here. Generally speaking, his special teams performances have been pretty solid, or at least, unnotable, which in the case of special teams, is generally a good thing. But yesterday, they were horrid.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Throughout the pre-season, Commanders’ returners were taking kicks out of the endzone and, routinely, being brought down short of the 25 yard line. At the time, many observers commented that it was probably being done because young guys were trying to make an impression and were “playing for their jobs.” I didn’t like it then, thinking that you usually play how you practice, but in the spirit of wishful thinking, I reluctantly accepted it.
Now, well into the regular season, I was shocked to see Dax Milne still doing it. Fresh off a Lions’ field goal midway through the first quarter, kicker Austin Seibert drilled a kick 3 yards deep into the endzone. Milne proceeded to try to return the kick, getting out just to the 16 yard line. A nine yard loss simply by failing to take a knee. I was infuriated, thinking Milne had surely gone off-script. Turns out, this was all part of Ron Rivera’s empowerment strategy, which made it all the more frustrating.
Ron Rivera comes across as fine with Dax Milne taking kicks out of the end zone as long as he uses "discretion." On the one he ran out Sunday, where he got dropped at the 16, Washington wasn't able to account for a Detroit player on the coverage unit. Ron credited the Lions there— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) September 19, 2022
Not content to bungle things once, Milne received another kickoff late in the first after the Lions went up 12-0. Seibert, clearly interested in getting the ball to Dax rather than pursuing a touchback, delivered it to the lethargic return man at the 3 yard line. Rather than allowing the ball to bounce into the endzone, Milne darted forward to the 16 yard line, effectively losing another 9 yards for the offense.
And it would happen again. Late in the third, after the Lions had gone up 29-15, Seibert would deliver another kick to the Washington 3, which Milne would return to the 17 yard line, for an 8 yard loss, as compared to a touchback.
Later in the 4th, Milne would return yet another kick, this time from the 2 yard line, to the 24 yard line, nearly achieving the equivalence of a touchback, only ceding a single yard in this particular case.
At this point, Brian Robinson’s return will likely both be a boon for the running game, and for the fact that it will move Antonio Gibson back into the kick returner spot. Even then, Gibson should be coached not to return “touch-backable” kicks, and should not be provided the “discretion” to do so. This offense should be just fine starting at the 25 yard line as a matter of course.
Late in the first quarter, Carson Wentz would take a sack and lose the ball through the back of the endzone, resulting in a safety. On the ensuing free kick, the normally beyond reproach punter, Tress Way, boomed a 63 yard kick to Kalif Raymond, who would wind through virtually all of the Commanders’ coverage team, returning the ball 52 yards to Washington’s 31 and setting the stage for an easy Lions’ touchdown 4 plays later.
Flubbing the Punt Coverage
Even when Tress did perform well, he wasn’t helped by his coverage team. Early in the first quarter, with a chance to pin the Lions back into their endzone, an overly enthusiastic Christian Holmes failed to slow his momentum and carried a ball, that appeared to be ready to settle around the 2 yard line, into the endzone for a touchback.
Feels silly bringing this up knowing how the rest of the game unfolded, but Christian Holmes not downing this punt from Tress was unfortunate. Lions would've started from 2-yard line if he did. Instead, they begin at 20 and go on to kick a FG pic.twitter.com/OAsYwHjcb8— Pete Hailey (@PeteHaileyNBCS) September 19, 2022
Missing an Extra Point
Ron had a cute response for when kicker Joey Slye had some accuracy issues, including missing an extra point, in the pre-season.
Rivera said Joey Slye “gets so frickin excited” for his first kick every game. Says he tells Slye he needs to calm down. Said he’s relaxed on his kicks thereafter.— John Keim (@john_keim) August 28, 2022
Late in the fourth quarter, after rookie Jahan Dotson’s touchdown catch, Slye missed another extra point, effectively sealing the loss for the Commanders.
Ron Rivera on whether he has any concerns with Joey Slye since the kicker missed a FG and XP in the preseason: "In the 2022 season, he's 0-for-0."— Ben Standig (@BenStandig) August 31, 2022
In the 2022 season, he’s 3 for 4 now, Ron. And, he was 18 for 22 (82%) last year on extra points. Somehow, Slye is a better field goal kicker (92% in 2021) than he is extra point kicker. If he’s healthy, I’d suggest putting kicker Brian Johnson back on the practice squad for some healthy competition, and to let Slye know he should focus less on 60 yard bombs and more on reliably hitting 33 yard extra point kicks.
In just about every aspect, except perhaps for Tress Way’s punts, the special teams’ performance yesterday was horrid. Some of that was due to poor coaching, some due to poor execution, but collectively, it put the offense and defense in terrible positions, repeatedly. Here’s hoping Nate Kaczor makes some adjustments in the coming weeks.
Which of these mistakes do you think was most costly?
Boneheaded kickoff returns
Poor kick coverage
Missing an extra point