Having returned kicks since high school, Steven Sims knows there’s always some sort of running lane.
In the second quarter of Sunday’s game against Detroit, that seam opened up along the left sideline. The wind was blowing that way, special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor explained, and the blocking was set up for another solid return for Sims, who gained 33 yards on the opening kickoff.
But this time Sims misjudged the ball, which caromed off his shoulder pads and onto the FedExField grass. Once he picked it up, he immediately had to break a tackle and regain his footing. Only then could he look upfield.
That’s when he saw the crease he might be able to sneak through with a few decisive cuts. He approached the scrum, hopped inside to set up his blocks and then darted towards the left sideline untouched. Now came the easy part for the Redskins’ undrafted rookie, who outran the Lions' kicker Matt Prater before high-stepping his way into the end zone for his first-career kick return touchdown.
For his efforts, Sims has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for Week 12.
“I’ve been waiting on that all year, just been working hard for that all year,” Sims said about the 91-yard score, which served as the team’s only touchdown in a 19-16 victory. “So it was great to finally get that and help the team win.”
While Sims’ decisiveness has been a work in progress, his overall skillset was apparent during the team’s rookie minicamp in May. Kaczor saw the same quickness, explosiveness and vision that everyone else is seeing now. It's what prompted the Redskins to sign him shortly after the three-day workout.
Since then, the Kansas product has carved out a role for himself in the nation’s capital. Sims stood out as a special teamer and a wide receiver during training camp in Richmond, then made enough plays during the preseason to become the only undrafted rookie to make the Redskins’ 53-man roster. Aiding his cause was a memorable performance in the preseason finale, when he caught a diving touchdown and totaled 80 yards on a pair of kick returns.
“He’s a sturdy, built player that doesn’t weigh a lot,” Kaczor said of Sims, whose 5-foot-10, 176-pound frame is among the smallest on the team. “You would look at him and say he’s a smaller returner, but he has really good lower body balance, so that’s why he can break those arm tackles most of the time.
“He runs like a running back with those lateral cuts, and he has really good vision,” Kaczor continued. “So really he’s an undersized -- from a height standpoint -- receiver who has running back run skills and a sturdy lower body.”
Sims is just now starting to receive more reps as a wide receiver -- he ran 16 routes Sunday compared to 13 for starting slot receiver Trey Quinn -- but he’s been the Redskins’ No. 1 kick returner since the regular season opener in Philadelphia. And through 12 weeks, he’s been among the best in the NFL at his position.
With a 124 yards against the Lions, Sims now leads the NFL in both kick return yards (666) and attempts (26). He’s also fifth in return average (25.62 yards per attempt), and is one of six players with a kick return touchdown.
“He is a hell of a player,” corner Fabian Moreau said about Sims after the game. “He gets the ball in his hands, and he’s going to make something happen.”
Fresh off his first kick return touchdown since high school -- when he had one each of his last three years at Travis High in Texas -- Sims is focused on bringing even more excitement to the special teams unit. He’s learning to trust his blockers more and not hesitate as much when he sees a crease. The entire operation is becoming more natural for him.
But regardless of the process, Sims’ end goal will never change. He wants every touch to end like it did against the Lions, when he crossed the goal line without a defender in sight.
“I’m just trying to be electric,” Sims said. “[Adrian Peterson] said that he kind of holds his breath when I touch the ball, so I want to bring that feeling to all of our fans every time I touch it."