The Redskins special teams unit took a couple of hits on Thursday but will look to finish the season with more momentum-inducing plays.
Among the struggles exhibited in Thursday night's loss to the Cowboys, some of the more glaring missteps came from the Redskins' special teams unit.
Head coach Jay Gruden rattled off three plays in particular the following day, explaining that they weren't up to the team's standards. Overall, the Redskins have been just "OK," he said, lamenting the fact that there haven't been "the splash plays…the momentum-changing plays that you look for on special teams."
Against the Cowboys, that began with a fumbled punt by wide receiver Jamison Crowder with the game still scoreless. Shortly afterwards, wide receiver Maurice Harris, returning a kickoff, decided to catch and run with a kick that was likely headed out of bounds. On the subsequent drive, punter Tress Way booted a 55-yard kick that Ryan Switzer returned 83 yards for a touchdown, extending the Cowboys' lead to 17 points.
"I think first of all, it starts with the punt," Gruden said. "The actual punt, it wasn't Tress' [Way] best punt. The hang time was poor and it was right in the middle of the field. That's number one. Then number two, we didn't get off blocks good enough. They did a good job blocking our flyers, our gunners so to speak, and then we didn't get off blocks and missed a tackle there in the hole."
Part of the issue facing the unit is the ripple effect from the amount of injuries the Redskins have experienced this season, particularly along the offensive line and linebacker unit. Gruden admitted to being a little bit thin and it stands to reason that gameplanning without certainty about who might be starting can affect the unit during the practice week.
As they stood entering Week 13, the Redskins ranked 24th in special teams DVOA, as researched by Football Outsiders, down from 13th last season. They're averaging just 5.1 yards per return and have allowed opponents to acquire 12.1 yards per return.
The Redskins' best play on special teams this year came against the Saints, when tight end Niles Paul took a snap on a fake punt on fourth-and-one near their own end zone and converted a first down, sparking a touchdown drive. They have also seen strong coverage flashes from cornerback Fabian Moreau, who early this season showed off his speed and tackling ability on punt coverage.
Not to be forgotten, kicker Nick Rose, signed to fill in for an injured Dustin Hopkins in October, has kicked extremely well, connecting on 10-of-11 field goals and 17-of-18 extra points. Of his 35 kickoffs, 22 have gone for touchbacks while opponents are averaging just 20.5 yards per return.
"Especially in these close games, I think when you have as many close games as we've had, sometimes it's a special teams play that'll put you over the top, we just haven't had many of them," Gruden said. "So we've just got to figure out ways to change the momentum on special teams that we haven't done other than the New Orleans Saints fake punt there backed up."
Check out images of the Washington Redskins' defense during their 2017 Week 13 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys Nov. 30, 2017, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
For the remaining four games, the Redskins have remained determined to finish out the season strong, undeterred by their slim playoff chances, knowing they are all being evaluated and hope to carry some winning momentum into the offseason.
To achieve that, the team knows its special teams unit will be a crucial factor.
"Like I said, we have the fourth quarter of our season left and I have a bunch of guys out here that are going to compete and they're going to play hard no matter what the situation is," Gruden said. "There's a reason why they're here. It's because I know they're great competitors. They're going to work hard, and they're going to get themselves ready to play [Los Angeles]."