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Redskins need fewer mistakes and more big plays from special teams

The Washington Redskins could point to games in 2016 -- one in particular -- in which the special teams made a big difference and, perhaps, dictated the outcome.

It’s been the opposite this season. For a team fighting through injuries, the Redskins can't afford the negative game-changing plays made by special teams. In fact, both losses vs. Dallas turned in part because of special teams.

Meanwhile, they made one special-teams play that changed the momentum of a game -- but only temporarily, because they still ended up losing.

“Our special teams have been OK; we just haven’t had the splash plays on special teams, the momentum-changing plays that you look for on special teams,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Especially in these close games, I think when you have as many close games as we’ve had, sometimes it’s a special-team play that’ll put you over the top. We just haven’t had many of them. So we’ve just got to figure out ways to change the momentum on special teams.”

It’s a little late now considering the steep odds -- and wild scenarios -- it would take for the Redskins to make the postseason. But Gruden is right. The Redskins have played nine games in which there was a one-score difference entering the final minute; they won four of those games.

The Dallas games provided the worst miscues. Good teams overcome mistakes and still win, something the Redskins failed to do. But when there’s little margin for error, those bad plays haunt them.

In the first Cowboys game on Oct. 29, the Redskins had a 36-yard field goal attempt blocked and returned to the 4-yard line (a penalty pushed it to the 2). Instead of taking a 16-7 lead, the Redskins fell behind two plays later, 14-13. A Dallas offense that dominates on the ground was able to stick with its favored formula: Get a lead, and hog the ball.

The Redskins lost that game 33-19, though the final touchdown was scored in the last minute off an interception. In other words, that 10-point swing was huge.

Then there was last week. The Redskins ended up losing by 24 points to the Cowboys, but it was a 10-point game early in the fourth quarter. Again, momentum was destroyed by special teams. It started with Jamison Crowder once again fumbling a punt. The Redskins would have had the ball around the Dallas 45-yard line. Instead, after forcing a punt, they started their next series inside the 1. That led to a punt, which led to a shorter field -- and then a touchdown drive -- by Dallas.

Later, kick returner Maurice Harris fielded a ball close to the sideline instead of letting it go out of bounds. Had he done that, Washington would have started at its own 35-yard line. Instead, the Redskins started at the 18.

Injuries clearly have decimated Washington’s roster. When that happens, backups who were special-teamers become starters. And street free agents end up on special teams. But that doesn’t explain it all. For example, on the 83-yard punt return for a touchdown, the biggest issue was having a 62-yard punt down the middle of the field. When Dallas’ Ryan Switzer caught the ball, no Redskins player was within 20 yards of him. That enabled Switzer to set up any defender in his way -- and to do so from a safer distance.

“We had a couple major FUBARs -- the dropped punt, the punt return for touchdown, the kickoff return we might’ve been able to let out of bounds,” Gruden said. “So there were three or four instances on special teams that, you know, wasn’t up to par for us.”

They did have the fake punt in the third quarter against New Orleans that led to a touchdown.

Crowder has been a mystery as well. He’s fumbled five times on punt returns and lost three. He lost one in his first two seasons returning punts. His hamstring has bothered him much of the season, and if it impacted him as a receiver, it certainly hurt him as a returner too.

Crowder has just five punt returns for 10 or more yards and none for more than 18 (blocking hasn't helped). Last season, he had five returns for 20 or more yards, three of 30 or longer and one for 85 yards and a touchdown -- the difference in a six-point win over Baltimore.

Last season, Crowder averaged 12.15 yards per punt return. This year? It’s 5.11. But his 2017 numbers are almost identical to how he fared as a rookie on returns, when he averaged 5.27 yards. Gruden has stuck with Crowder because there aren’t any strong alternatives on the roster.

The Redskins are seventh in kickoff coverage and last in punt coverage. They ranked 13th in punt coverage last season (and 13th on kickoffs). Last season, they were hurt by key missed field goals as well.

Having good special teams doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly would have given the Redskins a better shot this season.