Special teams units in the NFL generally prefer to fly under the radar.
The least appreciated of the three units, the “other-other side of the ball,” special teams can actually have a huge impact on a game, for field goals, extra points and the eternal battle for field position.
But mistakes on special teams can also open the doors wide for defeat to creep into otherwise winnable matchups. Take Week 4 for instance, where the Redskins surrendered a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, as well as a fake punt converted for a first down, thus extending a drive.
As far as first-year special teams coordinator Keith Burns is concerned, mistakes like that simply cannot happen.
“I’ve got to put the guys in a better situation as far as that goes. It’s more about being able to communicate,” he explained. “It’s nothing that we haven’t seen before, I always tell the guys that you cannot relax on any play on special teams because it will come back to haunt you.
An area where the Redskins have struggled the whole season is on returns, where the Redskins are ranked 27th in kick returns (20.3 yards per return) and 25th (5.6 yards per return).
“It’s always a work in progress,” Burn said. “You deal with a lot of young guys, you’re changing guys in and out at the same time. We are not where we want to be but we are improving.
“I think the biggest thing is we have to go with the flow of the game. That’s going to allow us to have chances in the return game, the way the young guys are kicking the ball it’s tough to have a return game.
“You got to be patient and that’s what I have been preaching to the guys: be patient don’t feel like you have to press. We don’t have to go out there and win the game; our job is to not mess the game up.”
Burns said the bye week came at the perfect time for he and his unit to turn over a new leaf. This is Burns’ first year with the Redskins and he said it takes time to implement his system.
This is a system that worked to perfection around Burns as a player and assistant with the Denver Broncos. As a coach, Burns’ units had 10 touchdowns returns (six punt returns, four kickoff returns) the second most in the NFL.
During his time there, the Broncos ranked fourth in the AFC and fifth in the NFL in punt return average (10.5 yards per return).
His longest return for a kickoff has been 28 yards and longest punt return is 11 yards.
“When you’re a young returner you see a lot,” Burns explained to the media. “It’s different from college, guys are hanging the ball in the air and coverages are getting down there. It’s about the frontline guys and the backline guys put a body on a body and giving him holes to run through.
“It is never going to be as clean as you want if that was the case offenses and defenses would never touch the field. [Thompson]’s doing fine; he’s catching the ball well, tracking the ball well it’s just having the opportunities to get the ball up field and do what he can do.”
Decision-making is the second key to returns, and judgment has been questioned by the media when kicks have been returned from deep in the end zone and punts fair caught inside the 10-yard line.
While Burns has used the situations as learning experiences, he does not question Thompson’s overall ability.
“I think his decision-making is good. He grows every game and the biggest thing is you got to stay on him,” Burns said of Chris Thompson. “A lot of things come up during the game, just like the other day when he went to go block the gunner and we ended up getting a touchback.
“That was new for him, you do see the growth there and you just got to keep building from there.”
Thompson flashed his homerun ability in the preseason, but needs proper blocking to realize his full potential. Burns says the bye week was perfect for polishing the return process heading into Week 6 vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
“He just has to keep working. You deal with the rough spots with young returners,” he said. “I told him, I am willing to live with it as long as he is making good decisions back there. It’s on me to get the guys going to block for him.
“Any young returner back there, every experience is a new experience. Whether it’s good or bad we just want to have more good than bad. You deal with that with young returners. He has the ability to do it, you just got to be patient.”