Botched fake punt lat­est er­ror on not-so-spe­cial teams

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather - BY ZAC BOYER

Niles Paul strolled into the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins’ locker room on Mon­day af­ter­noon wear­ing a red-and-black dig­i­tal cam­ou­flage T-shirt so bright it prac­ti­cally begged for ques­tions.

When those ques­tions came, the tight end said the shirt was a re­ward for ex­cel­lence on spe­cial teams. When asked what ex­cel­lence he could be re­fer­ring to, Paul dragged a wooden stool closer to his locker, sat down and sighed.

“Yeah, I think that a lot of peo­ple are kind of mak­ing a big deal out of some­thing that’s not there right now,” Paul said.

On Thurs­day, in a 34-27 road loss to the Min­nesota Vik­ings, the Red­skins were hu­mil­i­ated by a botched fake punt at­tempt in the third quar­ter that was negated by a penalty, then were left with an 11-yard net gain on the en­su­ing try.

It was the fifth time in six games the Red­skins have had a mis­cue on spe­cial teams, and Paul, un­der­stand­ably, was loathe to ad­dress such con­cerns. Af­ter all, it was a month ago that play­ers and coaches alike pledged im­prove­ment in that phase of the game, and the re­sults haven’t been ev­i­dent.

That is, ev­i­dent to those out­side the locker room, Paul in­sisted.

“I mean, I def­i­nitely see a dif­fer­ent spe­cial teams unit than was out there in the first cou­ple games,” Paul said. “It’s an en­tirely dif­fer­ent at­mos­phere. You’ve got 11 guys hunt­ing, hun­gry, want­ing to make plays.”

The Red­skins’ punt cov­er­age unit al­lowed a touch­down in three con­sec­u­tive games ear­lier this sea­son, first when the Oak­land Raiders re­cov­ered a blocked punt in the end zone and later when the Dal­las Cow­boys’ Dwayne Har­ris and the Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester had re­turns of 86 and 81 yards, re­spec­tively.

That led to the de­ci­sion to have kicker Kai For­bath and punter Sav Rocca kick away from re­turn­ers in the fol­low­ing three games, sac­ri­fic­ing less fa­vor­able field po­si­tion for any larger gains.

The units es­caped the game against the Den­ver Bron­cos on Oct. 27 without any ma­jor flaws — that is, depend­ing on how one con­sid­ers a 45-21 loss — be­fore a pair of field goals were blocked in an over­time vic­tory over the San Diego Charg­ers at home on Nov. 3.

Then came Thurs­day, when the Red­skins at­tempted a fake punt for the first time un­der coach Mike Shana­han. A throw from punter Sav Rocca to Paul fell woe­fully short when Paul didn’t know the pass was com­ing, but the team was seem­ingly saved the em­bar­rass­ment of giv­ing the Vik­ings

the ball at the Red­skins’ own 35-yard line when cor­ner­back Jerome Mur­phy, the gun­ner op­po­site Paul, was called for il­le­gal mo­tion.

Rocca, given a do-over, punted the ball only 46 yards, where it was re­turned by Vik­ings cor­ner­back Mar­cus Sherels for 20 yards. To make mat­ters worse, Red­skins full­back Dar­rel Young was flagged for un­nec­es­sary rough­ness when the play was over for shov­ing cor­ner­back Shaun Prater in the face, al­low­ing Min­nesota to take over at the Red­skins’ 41-yard line.

Strong safety Reed Doughty, the de facto spe­cial teams cap­tain dur­ing the early por­tion of the sea­son, tapped his hel­met on the field to sig­nal for the fake punt. He said Mon­day that the de­ci­sion to do so was a “mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion” and he took re­spon­si­bil­ity for it, but he de­clined to elab­o­rate on the cir­cum­stances.

“I think, on a whole, as a spe­cial teams unit, I feel a lot bet­ter than I did at the be­gin­ning of the year,” Doughty said, wear­ing the same red-and-black spe­cial teams T-shirt. “I feel like we’re play­ing faster. I feel like guys are mak­ing plays. I feel like we’re get­ting off blocks and guys are mak­ing some good plays. We made some strides in the re­turn game last week a lit­tle bit, but again, when you have a mis­cue ev­ery game, it doesn’t shed good light on us as spe­cial teams play­ers.”

The prob­lems aren’t just limited to the punt cov­er­age unit. The Red­skins have strug­gled to gain yards them­selves, rank­ing 29th in punt re­turn yards and 31st in kick­off re­turn yards en­ter­ing the Mon­day night game.

Paul, who fin­ished last year as the kick­off re­turner, re­placed re­ceiver Joshua Mor­gan as the kick­off re­turner Thurs­day and gained 74 yards on three op­por­tu­ni­ties against the Vik­ings.

“If some­body takes ad­van­tages of their op­por­tu­ni­ties, then they’ll stay there,” Shana­han said Fri­day. “If they don’t, then we’ll try some­body else. One of the rea­sons why we put Niles back there [was] to give him a lit­tle shot, and he took ad­van­tage of that op­por­tu­nity.”

Paul, who has suc­ceeded Doughty as spe­cial teams cap­tain the past four games, said the yardage dif­fer­en­tial in all re­turn games demon­strate im­prove­ment. The sam­ple size isn’t large enough to eval­u­ate any­where but on kick­off cov­er­age, where the Red­skins were al­low­ing 26.4 yards per re­turn in the first five games, in­clud­ing a 90-yarder by Har­ris, but have al­lowed 18.3 yards per re­turn in the past four.

“I mean, it’s a process,” Doughty said. “It’s one of those things that not ev­ery­thing is go­ing to al­ways go your way, but as long as you’re putting in that process of fo­cus­ing on de­tail and pay­ing at­ten­tion to ev­ery­thing you can do, hope­fully, those re­sults will come.”

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