After Wendell Smallwood caught a Redskins’ kickoff Sunday, he sprinted toward a hole his blockers forged and began scanning the field for defenders he’d need to shake.
But he couldn’t spot one.
“I just didn’t see anybody,” the Philadelphia Eagles rookie running back said.
Instead, Smallwood eyed a long strength green turf leading into the end zone. And he took advantage, speeding 86 yards for his first kick return touchdown since high school in a play stood as one of the few positive moments for Philadelphia in a sobering 27-20 loss to Washington.
Redskins tight end Vernon Davis set up Smallwood’s highlight when he earned a penalty for excessive celebration after a touchdown. Davis shot the football like a basketball, which seemed harmless, but the flag forced the Redskins to kick off from their own 20-yard line as opposed to the 35.
Right then, Smallwood said he thought the Birds would have a chance for a big return.
The fifth-round pick also mentioned, though, that the Eagles had a hunch they’d score on a kickoff entering the game, even before they knew Davis’ penalty would present a prime opportunity.
Redskins kicker Dustin Hopkins has boomed nearly every kickoff deep into the end zone this season. Twenty-seven of his 35 kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. And while watching tape, Smallwood said, Philly’s special teams unit noticed Washington’s players often relaxed while covering kickoffs, because they didn’t usually need to shed blocks or make tackles.
Smallwood said special teams coordinator Dave Fipp discussed that idea. The Eagles thought they could catch the Redskins’ coverage unit off balance.
Yes, Washington should have been prepared to defend a return after the celebration penalty changed the field position, but they hadn’t done it enough with the urgency necessary to be in proper positions, Smallwood explained.
“We knew we were probably going to get one kickoff return just because of how many touchbacks he’s kicked in the previous games, so we felt they would lay back a little bit when they finally had to cover one,” Smallwood said. “All I had to do was catch the ball and run. All the blocks were covered. I didn’t get touched.”
Moving forward, Smallwood expects to take advantage of such opportunities more often. The NFL moved kickoffs up from the 30-yard to the 35 in 2011, and this season, a rule change gives teams the ball at the 25-yard line after kickoff touchbacks, as opposed to the 20.
Teams are still adjusting to the new rules, Smallwood said, but many coaches tell kickers to simply boot the ball out of the end zone and take the touchback.
That, Smallwood said, can lead to lackadaisical kickoff coverage. And the Eagles intend to pinpoint when and where they can exploit it.
“I feel as though every team relies on touchbacks and gets relaxed about it,” Smallwood said. “That’s something we can catch them on.”