Redskins at the bye week: special teams
The Redskins reached the midway point of their first season under Mike Shanahan at 4-4 - matching their win total from a year ago but knowing they might have won each of the games they lost. This we're looking at each element of the team - defense, offense and special teams - analyzing what happened, and what might come next.
Today, special teams.
What went right: Because the offense is inconsistent and the defense has at times hemorrhaged yards, perhaps the Redskins' biggest gains from last season have come on special teams.
The Redskins' average starting field position is 29.5-yard line, which is ranked No. 17 in the NFL, but they've forced two turnovers and committed none through the first eight games of the season. They've forced four fumbles total, have blocked two field goal attempts, returned one kick for a touchdown and have produced some of the team's most thunderous hits.
The biggest upgrade thus far has come on returns. A season ago, the Redskins ranked No. 30 in the league in punt return average. They didn't have the answer at the outset of the season but they now appear to have someone in Brandon Banks who can change the course of a game returning both punts and kickoffs. Replacing Phillip Buchanon as the team's punt returner and Devin Thomas as the kick returner, Banks fills one of the biggest voids.
"He's a beast," said cornerback Byron Westbrook. "Any time we give him space, he's going to get some yards."
With 15 field goals and 14 extra points, Graham Gano is tied for fifth in the league in scoring. In just his second season, he has a strong leg and doesn't lack for confidence. Special teams coordinator Danny Smith has noticed huge improvement from last season and is convinced Gano will be in the league for years to come.
Lorenzo Alexander and Mike Sellers have led the coverage units and seem to earn their way onto highlight reels each week with their vicious hits. According to Stats Inc., Sellers leads the Redskins with 10 total special teams tackles. Alexander, the special teams captain, is credited with playing a role in seven. According to the team's numbers, though, which are compiled from coaches' film, Alexander has 15 tackles and Sellers 12. Chris Wilson and Reed Doughty have both been huge contributors, as well.
Taking over after four games, punter Hunter Smith has been reliable, but facing skilled returners such as Devin Hester and Stefan Logan, he hasn't had much opportunity to showcase his leg. He's placed 10 of his 30 punts, though, inside the 20-yard line.
Averaging nearly seven punts a game, Smith has been busier than most punters ought to be on Sundays.
What went wrong: The Redskins took too long to settle on Banks as their top returner. Thomas performed well at the start of the season, but he was released because coaches didn't feel he could contribute as a wide receiver. Then coaches allowed Chad Simpson to return kicks, though Banks has shown the ability to weave his tiny frame through traffic.
They also began the year with Buchanon returning punts, but after the cornerback made three fair catches and only two small returns, the Redskins promptly and wisely made the switch to Banks, who showed in the preseason his big potential on returns.
Gano hasn't been as consistent as coaches would prefer. He's 15-of-20 on field-goal attempts, tied for 24th in the league.
When Washington placed Josh Bidwell on injured reserves, it signed Smith, who punted for the Redskins last season. In four games, though, Smith's 40.9 yards per punt ranks him No. 32 in the league. His net average of 33.4 yards is No. 33.
MVP: Among regular returners, Banks is ranked No. 2 in the NFL in punt-return yards, No. 3 in punt-return average and No. 2 in kick return average -- and he only appeared in five the Redskins' eight games. He's shown that any time he touches the ball, he's capable of making something happen, a game-changer the Redskins have been sorely lacking for several years.
"He's like our DeSean Jackson," said Alexander, comparing Banks to Philadelphia's talented returner. "He has that type of athleticism. He can stop and go. He's a big-play threat at any time."
An undrafted rookie out of Kansas State, Banks is the roster's hidden gem. The Redskins actually released him from the roster early in the season, and when they re-signed him, coaches put Banks on the practice squad.
He was added permanently to the 53-man roster on Oct. 2, though, and quickly showed he could be the type of player the team has spent several years looking for.
"You always want those kind of guys," said Smith, the special teams coordinator. "He's got the speed and the quickness to do that. He can fly. He's got a lot of stuff to work on, obviously, but he's a talented player."
Highlight: While Gano won the Week 5 game against Green Bay with an overtime field goal, it's Banks again who turned in the biggest special-teams play of the season thus far. In the team's Week 8 loss at Detroit, he had an impressive 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the Redskins first kick return for a touchdown in 70 games. In the game, Banks totaled 271 return yards against the Lions, setting a franchise record, and his returns set the stage for 22 of his team's 25 points.
Lowlight: In the Redskins' Week 2 overtime loss to the Houston Texans, the team's field-goal unit failed on attempts that could have changed the result of the game. The first was a 29-yarder in the fourth quarter than was blocked. Then in overtime, Gano actually nailed a 52-yarder that would've won the game. But the Texans called a timeout just before the snap. Gano's second try sailed wide right and the Texans won the game on their ensuing possession.
Looking ahead: In the first half of the season, the Redskins changed a handful of specialists: punter, kick returner and punt returner. As a unit, the Redskins are just now hitting their stride on special teams. As with the other facets of the game, success hinges on all 11 players doing their specific jobs on each play, and now that they're more comfortable playing alongside one another, they should be able to build on their strong first half.
As long as he can handle the ball, Banks should continue to be the team's most exciting player outside of the defense.
If there's any player who enters the second half of the season with something to prove, it might be Gano. He feels he's kicking the ball better than ever, but the Redskins play too many close games to suffer from missed field goals.
There's a slim margin for error with this team and Gano plays a position that often allows no margin for error. He needs to come out of the bye week strong, making certain coaches' confidence in him doesn't waver.
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