Seeking a spark from special teams

Punts, coverage among best, but returner and kicker have struggled this season

November 25, 2011|The Washington Post

Nearly every time Brandon Banks has taken in a kick, headed upfield and been tackled, he has bounced up and pounded the ball in frustration. Each time, the message seems the same: If not for that one man, that last man to beat, that would have been the one that went the distance.

"He can't do it alone," Washington Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith said. "That's for sure."

A year ago, Banks was all but alone as a playmaker for the Redskins, and his returns of kicks and punts were the one reason to stop and pay attention. This season has been different. Banks' longest punt returns of the year came Sunday in a 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, an encouraging sign, but he has generally fit into a special teams mix that has been outstanding in punting, punt coverage and kickoff coverage, and middling to poor in punt and kickoff returns as well as kicking.

"It's frustrating because I think every time I can bring one back," Banks said. "I just got to be patient and keep trying."

Banks' struggles have been a focus for fans during the Redskins' six-game losing streak. He is joined on special teams by kicker Graham Gano, who has missed more field-goal attempts (eight) than any kicker in the league. Only one regular kicker has made a lower percentage than Gano's .667, and the former Raven is coming off a week in which he missed one 49-yarder and a 52-yarder in overtime — either of which could have beaten Dallas.

Asked whether Gano is under pressure to keep his job in this Sunday's game at Seattle, coach Mike Shanahan said simply: "Yes."

"I ain't talking about Graham," Smith said. "We're done with that."

Smith would rather talk about the contributions his units are making. The Redskins rank first in the NFL in kickoff coverage, allowing an average of 19.1 yards per return; they're one of just three teams that force opponents to start the average drive inside their 20-yard line.

"We've been good on that every year I've been here," special teams captain Lorenzo Alexander said.

The change has come on the punting unit, where Sav Rocca — a free agent signed away from Philadelphia — has turned a position that has traditionally turned over from year to year into a consistent force. From 2000 to 2010, the Redskins used 11 punters.

Rocca, who's "as good as I've ever been around," Shanahan said, has provided stability.

"His bad punts are what we used to consider good punts here," Smith said.

Rocca hasn't boomed his kicks — his average of 45.5 yards ranks 18th in the league — but he is exceptional at knowing situations and tailoring his punts to them. He has placed 20 of his 44 punts inside the 20-yard line, the second-highest total in the league. And because he gets good hang time, usually 4.8 or 4.9 seconds, the Redskins' punt coverage unit can get downfield and pin returners. The unit's net average of 41.3 yards ranks fourth in the league.

For Banks, his 55-yard punt return against Dallas was the longest of his career, and he added a 32-yarder in the same game. Before that, he was averaging just nine yards a return — down 2.3 yards from his performance a year ago. Perhaps forcing things a bit, he had started fumbling kicks.

But opponents know Banks' capabilities. Last year, he returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown and had two others called back because of penalties. An undrafted wide receiver out of Kansas State, he became Washington's most exciting player. The surprise element is gone now.

"They'll game-plan you better," Alexander said. "Guys have come up and said, 'We don't even care about the distance. We're going to kick it higher and then make him fair-catch it.'"

Given the Redskins' sputtering offense and a defense that finds itself under inordinate pressure to offset that, doing nothing isn't going to work.

"We have to get better," Alexander said. "We have to keep working to spring Brandon, because once he gets in space, he's one of the best returners in the league."

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