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ASHBURN, Va. – They gave up a punt return for a touchdown. They gave up a 90-yard kickoff return, setting up another touchdown. The coach trying to run special teams for first time in his career got in the way of an official and drew a 15-yard penalty. The coverage and return units are ranked at or near the bottom in every major category.
The Washington Redskins have arguably the worst special teams in the NFL, but coach Mike Shanahan is standing by his staff. He blames the struggles on the departure of the Pro Bowl player who signed elsewhere as a free agent in March.
"Lorenzo Alexander's not going to show up," Shanahan said Monday, "so somebody's got to take control of those special teams, and one guy's got to define himself, or two guys have got to define themselves. ... We're still looking for that guy."
The Redskins have lots to fix if they're going to climb their way back from 1-4.
They haven't played anything close to a complete game this season, and Sunday's 31-16 loss to the Dallas Cowboys was a glass that was one-third full: The defense played by far its best game of the year, while the offense repeatedly sputtered in the red zone and the special teams were a constant calamity.
There's always hope for the offense as long as Robert Griffin III is the quarterback, but the special teams lost its two charismatic leaders in the offseason. Well-respected special teams coach Danny Smith was allowed to leave after nine seasons — he joined the staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers — and Alexander cashed in on his 2012 Pro Bowl appearance to sign with the Arizona Cardinals.
In Smith's place, Shanahan brought in a loyal face. Keith Burns spent the previous six seasons as the assistant special teams coach of the Denver Broncos. He was also a standout special teams player for 10 years under Shanahan in Denver.
So far, the results aren't there.
The Redskins rank 27th in punt return average (4.8 yards) and 30th kickoff return average (19.3). They're last in punt coverage (19.1) and 28th in kickoff coverage (26.4). Punter Sav Rocca is last in punting average, both gross (41.8) and net (33.7).
Burns was also flagged 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct when he strayed too far from the bench and into an official's path during the punt return touchdown.
"I think Keith Burns is a very excellent football coach, very capable," Shanahan said. "And to get to this level, to be in charge of something, it takes a lot of years of work to be put into this position, and I feel very confident that he'll get the job done even though we've started out a little bit rough."
To be fair, Burns has had to juggle his personnel. Return man Richard Crawford was lost for the year when he hurt his knee in a preseason game, and rookie Chris Thompson didn't prove to be an adequate replacement. Against the Cowboys, the Redskins turned to Joshua Morgan, who returned a punt for the first time in his NFL career.
Also on Sunday, Washington lost two more special teams players for the season. Linebacker Bryan Kehl torn his left ACL when his knee buckled while covering the punt return touchdown in the second quarter, and long snapper Nick Sundberg tore the meniscus in his right knee while covering a punt return in the third quarter. Also, rookie cornerback David Amerson suffered a concussion on the 90-yard kickoff return.
Whomever the Redskins get to replace those players, it certainly won't be Alexander. He's also out for the season, having hurt his foot in the Cardinals' third game of the season.
Someone else is going to have to step up as the leader.
"Special teams. That's what it came down to," fullback and special teams player Darrel Young said Sunday night. "Offense and defense did their job. Offense was mediocre. Special teams? It was below poor. It was failure. If I had to give it a grade, it's an 'F.' We didn't set up the offense, didn't set up the defense. Failure. It doesn't matter what happened offense and defense. They would've beaten us 7-6 had it not been for special teams."
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