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On Special Teams, Kick Coverage Stands Out

Posted Jan 12, 2012

For the second year in a row, Danny Smith's special teams finished second in the NFL in kickoff coverage. Sav Rocca had a solid season as a punter, while Graham Gano and the field goal unit was plagued by blocks.


Every week during the season, Redskins coaches and players would gather in the auditorium at Redskins Park to review special teams film.

It wasn’t just Graham Gano, Sav Rocca, Nick Sundberg, Lorenzo Alexander, Mike Sellers, Reed Doughty and other special teams regulars.

It was the entire team.

That’s how head coach Mike Shanahan and special teams coordinator Danny Smith want it.

“We watch every special teams play as a team to let our players know how important those plays are,” Shanahan said. “They are usually the difference in winning and losing.”

Overall, the Redskins’ special teams were strong in some areas and inconsistent in others during the 2011 season.

Kick coverage units excelled, as they have regularly under Smith's 8-year tenure in Washington.

For the second year in a row, the Redskins finished second in the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of just 20.8 yards per return.

On punt coverage, the Redskins were 10th in the NFL, allowing 7.8 yards per return.

Alexander served as a captain and posted 21 special teams tackles to lead the Redskins. Doughty logged 13 tackles, Perry Riley had 10 and Sellers had nine.

Alexander earned high praise from Shanahan during the season for his work on kick coverage.

“He has been dominating,” Shanahan said. “I haven’t seen a guy consistently get double-teamed and still go out there and make tackles. That just doesn’t happen at this level.

"He makes those plays every year – at least the last two years that I’ve been around him. It’s really a credit to his preparation and how hard he works and what type of football player he is.”

Gano and Rocca helped the cause on kick coverage with great hang time on their kicks, Shanahan said.

“When you have great hang time, you have a chance to cover,” he added. “We have a lot of guys who take pride in covering kicks and we have goals and aspirations to finish as one of the top units. We were close in those areas.”

The Redskins were in the bottom half of the league in kick returns, though.

Brandon Banks had a 23.0-yard average on 51 kickoff returns and a 9.1-yard average on 36 punt returns.

As a unit, the Redskins were ranked 25th in the NFL on kickoff returns and 27th on punt returns.

Banks has game-changing speed and his 5-7, 155-pound frame makes him elusive, so it's surprising that he was unable to break long returns. He provided a spark as a rookie in 2010, averaging 25.1 yards on 46 kick returns and 11.3 yards on 38 punt returns.

The new kickoff return rules last season certainly had an impact on Banks, limiting his opportunities.

Kickoffs were moved to the 35-yard line (from the 30) and more kickers sailed balls either deep into the end or out of the end zone.

In Week 9 vs. San Francisco, Banks didn’t help his cause by fielding a punt at the 3-yard line instead of letting it bounce into the end zone. He made matters worse by muffing that punt, and another in the same game, but he was able to recover both fumbles.

“Every time Brandon touches the ball, he wants to make a big play,” Shanahan said after that game. “Sometimes he really has to think about the decisions he makes.”

On field goals, Gano converted 31-of-41 attempts and 25-of-26 PATs for a career-best 118 points.

Gano showed progress on long field goals, making 4-of-6 from 50 yards or longer. In Week 9 vs. San Francisco, he set a franchise record by nailing a 59-yard field goal.

Five of Gano’s six field goal attempts – as well as the missed PAT – were blocked, though. As a result, his field goal percentage – 76 percent, ranked 29th in the league – may be skewed a bit.

What happened on the blocks?

Throughout the season, coaches had to substitute linemen up front due to injuries and Trent Williams’ four-game, season-ending suspension.

The line may have lacked cohesion as a result. On a couple of the blocks, the interior of the line appeared to be pushed back.

“We had a couple of substitutions in those areas and it just takes one guy being a little off – somebody gets hurt and somebody goes in and he’s not ready for game time situations – and all of a sudden there’s a block,” Shanahan said.

Gano, who did not face serious competition for his job last training camp, averaged 63.4 yards on kickoffs to rank 29th in the NFL. His 43.8 touchback percentage was ranked 20th in the league.

Rocca, signed by the Redskins last offseason, proved to be reliable as a punter.

He averaged 43.1 yards on 66 punts to rank 24th in the NFL. His 39.0-yard net average was ranked 16th. His 39.0-yard net average is the third-best mark in Redskins franchise history.

Rocca dropped 28 punts inside the 20, tied for eighth-best in the league, and had just one touchback all season.

He was slowed late in the year due to an ankle injury and his final stats may have suffered as a result.

But Rocca was still a “weapon” in the punting game, Shanahan said.

“That doesn’t happen very often where a guy can consistently kick the ball inside the 20 and consistently have the hang time that he has,” Shanahan said.