Danny Smith and the special teams coverage units are working overtime this week to prepare for one of the NFL's most dangerous kick return specialists: Kansas City's Dante Hall.
Hall, a sixth-year player with blazing speed, already has 10 career touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns and is threatening Redskins' great Brian Mitchell's NFL record of 13.
There's a reason why Hall has been nicknamed "The Human Joystick." The 5-8, 187-pound speedster has the ability to change direction in an instant, much like a player on a video game.
This season, Hall has returned 19 kickoffs for a 28.1-yard average, ranking him fifth in the NFL through five weeks. His career average on kick returns is 24.3.
Hall's 96-yard kickoff return two weeks ago against the Philadelphia Eagles was a highlight special: Hall weaved untouched through the Eagles' coverage units until he found open space along the right sideline. Once Hall gets into open space, he's gone.
On punt returns, Hall has six for a 7-yard average. That's about four yards below his career average on punt returns. Teams are reluctant to kick the ball to him, so punters usually try to kick the ball out of bounds.
For Smith, success on coverage units this Sunday is not just about keeping Hall from scoring a touchdown on a kick return. It's also a matter of containing him to a minimal return. Giving the high-powered Chiefs offense a short field with which to work puts the defense in a tight spot.
"It's a game of field position," Smith said. "You work so hard as a defense to prevent long drives, so we can't give them a short field. Our job in special teams is to set those guys up with good field position."
In Kansas City, the Redskins' kickoff and punt return coverage units will have to be especially disciplined in their pursuit of Hall, Smith said.
Through five weeks this season, the Redskins' kickoff coverage unit is ranked seventh in the NFL and the punt coverage unit is ranked second.
The units have for the most part avoided big returns this season. The only big return occurred in the Sept. 19 game against Dallas, when the Cowboys' Tyson Thompson returned a kickoff 49 yards late in the fourth quarter. Kicker Nick Novak made a game-saving tackle, the defense held and the Redskins went on to win the game 14-13.
At 6-3 and 278 pounds, Mike Sellers knows he doesn't have the speed to catch up with Hall. So Sellers' goal is to contain and tackle Hall before he can get going.
"We have to respect the scheme, stay in our lanes, and trust the guy beside you," Sellers said.
Sellers also emphasized that the coverage units cannot be intimidated by Hall.
"You can't have any fear on special teams," Sellers said. "You have to be able to read the schemes and know where they're going to block you. And you have to take pride in it. A lot of guys on teams don't take pride in it, but we do. On some teams, players look at special teams as a chance to take a play off.
"A lot of guys on our team are taking pride in it too--they're staying after practice to watch a little extra film work."
In assembling the Redskins' special teams units this season, Smith said that the focus has been on finding players who are fast, maintain their lanes and tackle well.
"The concept hasn't changed," he said. "It's not about bringing in speedier safeties or linebackers. It's still about field position and covering kicks. Obviously, if you're fast, you have a better chance. But there are a lot of fast guys who can't play in this league, so it's not just about the speed. That is an asset, though, because speed can correct a lot of errors."