Nickel Package: Banks a Quantum Improvement

Nickel Package: Banks a Quantum Improvement
October 27, 2010, 7:09 pm
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010 3:15 PM

By Rich Tandler
Redskins Blogger

Not just an upgrade, a quantum leap One of the Redskins greatest areas of improvement this year has been at punt returner. Last year, Antwaan Randle El was, in a word, dreadful. He had more fair catches (19) than returns (17). Through the first 15 games of the season he had a total of 58 yards in returns, a 3.9-yard average. The average does not count fair catches. If you add those in, the average drops to 1.8 yards. Since Randle El is a shade less than six feet tall, he could have fielded every punt and fallen flat on his face and he would have had about the same average. He did get a 43-yard return in the meaningless season finale in San Diego, raising his average to a still-mediocre 6.0 yards a return (2.8 with the fair catches). The average doesnt count the dozen or so punts that it appeared that he could have fielded but chose not to, balls that tended to bounce towards the Redskins goal line. While I cant quantify those, I believe that anyone who watched the Redskins closely last year would agree that over the course of the season, the team suffered a net loss of field position due to the punt return game. Things werent much better at the beginning of this year. For the first three games, Phillip Buchanon was back on punts. He had two returns for one yard and two fair catches. It was more of the same, maybe worse. Then rookie free agent Brandon Banks was inserted into the punt returner position in Week 4 against the Eagles. The first time he touched the ball in a regular-season NFL game he returned a punt 53 yards to set up a touchdown. Note that last year it took Randle El 15 games to get to 58 punt return yards. While the 53-yard return remains the longest of the 12 returns he has remained productive. Banks took one back 30 yards against the Packers and one for 17 against Indianapolis. In four games, Banks has accumulated 176 yards in punt returns, an average of 14.6 yards a pop. Banks has three fair catches; Randle El had that many or more in three individual games last year. Some who were Randle El apologists last year blamed special teams coach Danny Smith and subpar blocking for his struggles. Well, Smith still is the special teams coach and the cast of blockers hasnt changed much. The returner is the only difference. When the offense is struggling as the Redskins is right now and when the defense is giving up a lot of yards as the Redskins is right now, field position is critical. The Redskins are now getting an edge there that they didnt have last year. Torains game less than meets the eye? When he gained 125 yards against the Chicago Bears on Sunday, Ryan Torain became the first Redskin in two years to rush for over 100 yards in consecutive games. Clinton Portis was the one who last managed to do that, getting 175 against Cleveland and 126 against Detroit in October of 2008. While the raw numbers indicate that Torain had a pretty good game, Brian Burke, who runs the website Advanced NFL Stats and who contributes his advanced statistical analysis to the Post on a regular basis, argues otherwise. According to his math, which is based on actual data extracted from thousands of NFL games, Torains performance actually lessened the Redskins chances of winning. The reason was the fumble that he lost in the fourth quarter. Since the Redskins won, that wasnt discussed much. But had the outcome been different, the fumble may well have been a deciding factor. The drive started with a play that was a big factor in the game but was buried under DeAngelo Halls interceptions. The series after he threw the 92-yard pick six to Hall, Jay Cutler was beginning to regain his mojo. After a couple of passes to Greg Olsen the Bears were in Washington territory and a few plays later the Bears had a first down at the 35. They already were in range for Robbie Gould to attempt a tying field goal and they were looking for more. Cutler threw over the middle to running back Matt Forte, who had another first down at the 24. But Rocky McIntosh punched the ball out of Fortes grasp, Adam Carriker fell on it, and with 12:54 left to play, the Redskins had possession at their own 25. All of a sudden Torain, who had only one carry in the third quarter, caught fire. He ran for 9 on his first carry and then he scooted around right end for 22 yards. After taking a one-play breather on the sideline, he again broke loose around the right side and picked up 23. On first and 10 at the Chicago 21, Torain took another handoff. At that moment, according to Burkes analysis, the Redskins had an 88 percent chance of winning the game. However, Torain coughed up the ball after a gain of four and the Bears recovered and took possess at their own seven. At that moment, the Redskins chances of winning had dropped to 69 percent. Certainly, thats a good chance but not a bet the mortgage money chance. Regardless of the fumbles (another one three carries later was recovered by Anthony Armstrong), it still was an impressive display of fourth-quarter running. The 90 yards that Torain gained in the final period were the most by any Redskins back since Ricky Ervins ran for 102 in the fourth quarter against Cleveland in 1991. His final carry of the day went for 27 yards and it allowed the Redskins to go into victory formation to burn off the final 1:45 of the game. Some complained because he went out of bounds at the end of the run but it didnt matter. The Bears had burned their last timeout after the previous play so McNabb just had to take a knee three times to run out the clock. Here is a breakdown of Torains day with the gain on each of his carries. As you can see, he started off well, slowed down a lot in the second quarter, disappeared in the third, and exploded in the fourth. First quarter
7 carries, 27 yards
11, 2, 2, -4, 5, 10, 1 Second quarter
4 carries, 4 yards
5, -3, -1, 0 Third quarter
1 carry, 3 yards Fourth quarter
11 carries, 67 yards
9, 22, 23, 4 (fumble), 0, 0, 7 (fumble), -1, -2, 1, 27 A seasons worth of picks DeAngelo Hall earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his NFL record-tying four interception performance against the Bears. To put having four interceptions in a game for the Redskins in perspective, four interceptions on the season would have been good enough for at least a tie for the team lead in six of the past eight years. Only in 2007, when Sean Taylor had five (and surely on his way to more until the tragic events on Nov. 26) and in 2004, when Sean Springs also picked off five, did a Redskin have more than four interceptions in a season. In the last eight years, the Redskins have been among the worst in the league when it comes to intercepting the ball. From 2002-2009 they picked off 109 passes, ranking them in a tie with the Raiders for 28th in the league in that category during that time frame. Only the Broncos (104), Texans (101), and Lions (100) have fewer interceptions while the Baltimore Ravens have the most with 174. Hall had one interception coming into the game. This total of five on the year is the most since Matt Stevens had six in 1999. If he can get two more this year, you would have to go back to Barry Wilburns nine picks in 1987 to find a higher total. He has a long way to go to threaten the teams single-season interception record. Dan Sandifer, one of the two other Redskins with four picks in a game, intercepted 13 in 1948. Paul Krause is second with 12 in 1964. Redskins used to own Lions Going back to when the teams were known as the Portsmouth Spartans and the Boston Braves, the BravesRedskins have a 30-11 series edge series edge over the SpartansLions. That includes a 3-0 edge for Washington during the postseason. For 30 years, from 1968 through 1997, the Redskins absolutely owned the Lions. They won 16 straight against Detroit. Some of the games were blowouts, such as a 45-0 Redskins rout to open the 1991 season. Some were nail biters, like the 1990 game when the Redskins rallied from a 21-point deficit to take a 41-38 win. But, on way or another, the Redskins figured out a way to get it done. The Lions have caught up in recent years (or, more accurately, the Redskins have declined to their level). The two teams are 3-3 in their last six meetings. No matter what happens on Sunday, one of the most remarkable team vs. team streaks will remain intact. The Lions never have won in Washington. They are 0-21 in the nations capital, including 0-18 in the regular season and 0-3 in the playoffs. Playoff possibilities At 4-3, the Redskins are right in the middle of the NFC playoff picture. Should they remain there in December, you will be kept up to date on all of the tiebreakers and other such matters in detail. But its not too early to take an almost-midseason look at where the Redskins stand in the conference. The short answer is that they are in pretty good shape. The NFC East has become a three team race with Dallas having imploded even before losing Tony Romo to a broken clavicle. The Giants currently lead with a 5-2 record with a 1-0 division mark. Philadelphia and Washington both are 4-3 with the Redskins having and edge with a head to head win over the Eagles and a 2-0 division record compared to 0-1 for Philly. Head to head is the first test to break division ties followed by division record. Of course, since division foes meet twice head to head means a sweep. The Redskins will have an opportunity to get an unbeatable advantage over the Eagles when the teams meet at FedEx Field on after the bye on Nov. 8. Including the Eagles and Redskins, five NFC teams have 4-3 records. The Redskins have beaten three of them, Philly plus the Packers and Bears. They wont play the Saints, the other 4-3 team. Head to head is the first tiebreaker in settling ties for Wild Card spots and for home field advantage so the Redskins would automatically beat out Green Bay and Chicago in a tie. The next interdivision tiebreaker is conference record. The Redskins are 4-1 in the NFC, better than any of the other 4-3 teams. With the exception of the head to head wins against the Packers and Bears, all of this favorable positioning is subject to change. But certainly its better to have some advantages in hand halfway through the season rather than try to chase after them later in the year.You can reach Rich by email