Special teamers adjusting to new system

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
2:45
PM ET
ASHBURN, Va. -- The Washington Redskins have a list of problems on special teams. Here's another: Not all the players have bought into the system being used by first-year coach Keith Burns.

He changed the system Washington had used under long-time coach Danny Smith, who bolted for Pittsburgh in the offseason. It's been a rough adjustment. Washington ranks 32nd defending punts, 28th in kickoffs, 27th in punt returns and 30th in kick returns.

[+] EnlargeKeith Burns
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsRedskins players have required an adjustment period in order to trust Keith Burns, who replaced long-time special teams coach Danny Smith.
"I don't think everybody is completely buying in to certain aspects of the teachings," Redskins special teamer Niles Paul said. "But I feel we're getting to a point where we are starting to trust Keith and we need to put it on film."

Paul said the lack of trust stems from the change in philosophies. Smith was highly popular with the players; he was known for being vocal during practices but also for establishing a good rapport with them. A number of players would visit Smith in the offseason at his office.

"Burns is a different individual from Danny," Paul said. "Everybody here loved Danny and having Danny here was very beneficial to everybody. But Keith is a different guy with a different scheme and everyone has to get used to that. Everyone has to believe in the coaching. At the end of the day we have to make plays when you're out there.

"You go from Danny who has been here, lord knows how long, to a new guy and everybody loved Danny. Everybody trusted Danny."

Among the subtle changes: the way the players are asked to block in protection. They used to kick their way back out of a two-point stance; now they're standing balanced and stepping back. On kick coverage, they've gone from being able to get around double teams to make plays -- Lorenzo Alexander excelled at this -- to having to take on those double teams.

"With Keith it's more about business," Paul said. "Keith is a different guy with a different scheme and you have a lot of dudes who come from believing in what Danny does. Now we have to trust in what Keith does."

Paul was not the only player who felt the Redskins were still developing a trust in Burns, though a couple others declined to say anything on the record.

"It's definitely a little bit different, but at the end of the day we get paid to go make plays, whether it's because of the system or in spite of the system," said Redskins special teamer Reed Doughty, who has been a game-day captain for this group. "Whatever your feelings are it really doesn't matter. It's still a reflection of us."

There are other issues that must be addressed, too. The Redskins lost Alexander to free agency in the offseason -- Arizona made him a more lucrative offer and gave him a chance to start. DeJon Gomes, a core special teamer the previous two years, was cut because he struggled at safety. Now Bryan Kehl, considered one of the core players, is out for the season with a torn ACL.

In years past, Doughty said there were always four or five players who participated on all the special teams. That made it easy to form a core and take charge of the units. That's not the case this season.

"You know what to expect every week," said Doughty, referring to the importance of core players.

Like most players coming into the NFL, Paul was not a special teamer in college. But when he joined the Redskins in 2011, he had Alexander and Doughty to tutor him.

"I wanted to be part of that," he said. "I was so hungry I wanted to be on everything, to show I deserved to be on the field. We need to get back to that. We need 11 players who love being out there, who want to be out there and who want to make plays."

Doughty said they will start watching film together on Fridays, something that was done in the mid-2000s when then special teams captain Rock Cartwright was around.

"Maybe for some young guys, to help them understand what we're looking for," Doughty said. "When you do that as a group it helps you say, 'I'm going to work off this if you see this.' Or, 'If you see this I'm going to play off you.' "

Whatever the reasons for Washington's plight, it needs to change.

"If we want to win any games this year we have to improve special teams," Paul said. "We have to figure it out soon too. What happened on Sunday was a wakeup call and unacceptable and embarrassing as a unit."

John Keim

ESPN Washington Redskins reporter

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