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Smith, Redskins Look to Reload On Special Teams


A team restructuring itself, as the Redskins are, looks for help on offense and defense.

Special teams? It's not like they're a second thought (or a third one). They just share the bodies with the other units. That doesn't mean special teams are less important.

"We have starters on offense and starters on defense and starters on special teams," says special teams coordinator Danny Smith. "If you're not one of those, you're in trouble."

As the second week of OTAs – Organized Team Activities – unwinds, the Redskins continue to look at just about everyone as a special teams contributor. There are kickoff coverage and kickoff return units, punt and punt cover, field goal unit and extra point.

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Consider the change in the kicking group. Long-time long snapper Ethan Albright was not brought back and Nick Sundberg has the job. Graham Gano and Justin Medlock compete to be the kicker.

"Five games of experience between them," Smith says, "and the long snapper has never been in a game."

There will certainly be changes in the return aspects. Rock Cartwright, the veteran kick returner, was let go and signed with Oakland. Punt returner Antwaan Randle El struggled terribly last season and was cut, returning to Pittsburgh. Youth (and speed) will get a look here.

It's difficult to gauge progress in this area without contact and the pressure of game situations.

"We did kickoff return when the rookies were in for the mini-camp but you can't really tell until you put the pads on and you're trying to make people miss," says veteran fullback Mike Sellers, who has played on most of the Redskins' special teams.

The Redskins drafted receiver Terrence Austin with an eye toward his return abilities. He was second-team All Pac-10 last year at UCLA, first team the year before.

They added veteran receiver Bobby Wade, an experienced punt returner.

They signed a free agent, Brandon Banks, who returned four kickoffs for touchdowns at Kansas State last year. At 5-7 and a generous listing of 149 pounds, size (or lack thereof) looms large.

On the other hand, so does speed, and Banks ran sub 4-4 40-yard dashes for the Redskins on their ancient artificial turf field.

The club had hoped to solve its interminable punting woes a year ago by signing Hunter Smith but injuries limited his effectiveness. He has been replaced by Josh Bidwell, who missed all of last season on Tampa Bay's injured reserve list with a hip injury. He will also get first crack at being the holder.

He'll have to work at that latter job. Gano is a right-footed kicker while Justin Medlock is a lefty. That reverses the operation for Bidwell. And he'll be fielding snaps from Sundberg, who hasn't done it in a real game.

The 2009 season fell apart for numerous reasons and breakdowns by the specialists seemed painfully obvious. Maybe the Redskins would have won in Dallas instead of losing 7-6 if Shaun Suisham had made one or both the two field goals he missed. Maybe the Redskins would have beaten comeback-minded New Orleans if Suisham didn't miss a real short gimme.


Despite the injuries that forced starters from the lineup, subs into starting roles and others onto special teams, the Redskins' coverage groups handled their business. They ranked sixth covering punts, third in opponents' kickoff return average. It was a fun-house mirror image the other way, ranking 30th in punt return average and 24th on kickoff returns.

A punt or kickoff returned for a touchdown can break open a game. Remember Santana Moss doing in Detroit in '08? His 50-yard touchdown reception gave the Redskins a nervous 16-10 lead and his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter opened the lead to double digits.

Nothing so dramatic happened in 2009. Randle El averaged 6.0 yards on punt returns, and that includes one of 43 yards. Cartwright's long kickoff return was 42 yards. Special teams produced no touchdowns.

But the return artists did not struggle alone, Sellers says.

While acknowledging the lack of breakaway speed, Sellers says that "it comes down to assignments, too. You try to be perfect every play but people were missing blocks when we had openings and we were always that 'one block away' type of deal. We've changed up some returns. It's looking a lot better."

Sure, the offense and defense got makeovers by design this offseason. Special teams as well. It's just hard to know right now who lines up where and how effectively.

"It's like that every year," Smith says. "You get new guys. You lose guys in free agency. You have to reload your core. We have to replenish that."

Larry Weisman, an award-winning journalist during 25 years with USA TODAY, writes for and appears nightly on Redskins Nation on Comcast SportsNet. Read his Redskinsblitz blog at and follow him on

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