Chargers Special Teams: From Weakness To Strength?

The above reaction could have been considered the epitome of the Chargers’ special teams unit as little as one month ago, but their recent turnaround is nearly as indescribable as their ineptitude at that time. Admittedly special teams coach Steve Crosby was unjustifiably blamed for the Bolts struggles in kick coverage and protection early in the season by several pundits (including yours truly). Still that doesn’t make the complete one-eighty that the team has seen from the third phase of the game any less remarkable over the last two weeks.

Coming off of the bye week with a divisional foe in the Denver Broncos in town on Monday Night Football in week 11, San Diego quickly showed how to prevent punt blocks by running a fake punt pass completed by punter Mike Scifres. This gutsy play call seemed to inspire the entire Bolts team en route to a rout over the Broncos 35-14.

The stellar performance from the unit carried over into this past week when the Bolts took their show on the road to the Indianapolis Colts and forced Peyton Manning and his juggernaut offense to begin their average drive on their own 24 yard line. This is an absolutely flabbergasting statistic considering the ineptitude of the Bolts special teams unit during the first half of the season.

For a team with a variety of different issues earlier in the year whether it in kick coverage or punt protection, this transformation following the bye week has been astounding. In both the games with Denver and Indianapolis, the Chargers kicked the ball off a total of 15 times surrendering a return of no longer than 24 yards on any of those kicks. The average combined kickoff return for both the Colts and Broncos was a mere 16.1 yards.

The high marks don’t end there for the much maligned Bolts special teamers as kicker Nate Kaeding also split the uprights on five occasions Sunday evening. His handful of kicks included a long of 50 yards and proved that his groin may finally be back to one hundred percent moving into the stretch run of the season.

Of course the Bolts offense would prefer to score seven every time they touch the ball rather than settling for three, but Kaeding’s recent string of success only adds to the confidence that they have in the league’s all-time field goal percentage leader. Many still believe that the true evaluation cannot be made regarding Kaeding and his mental state until the postseason rolls around, but he seems to have rehabilitated himself since his 0-3 debacle in the divisional round last January.

Add in the always booming leg of Scifres when the Bolts are forced to punt the ball away and this team has quite a formidable duo of special teamers. As long as the coverage units can continue their hungry pursuit of the ball each and every time a kicker sends it into the air, the special teams woes of earlier in the season should continue to be a thing of the past.

The Bolts Head Coach Norv Turner believes that the subtle bye week alterations made to the coverage teams in terms of personnel are what have made this drastic turnaround possible. When asked about the units following the Bolts Sunday night victory, Turner said: “It looked like a race to the ball. We made five or six significant changes from a personnel standpoint to get guys who had the ability to cover a kick. They’re playing off each other and they’re playing at a real high level.”

Special teams has always been considered more about effort than sheer fundamentals and the Bolts have definitely been pouring all that they have into that third phase since coming out of the bye. With the past struggles now in the rearview, this Chargers team seems poised to do something improbable with their special teams unit and pull a complete one-eighty the rest of the way home.

What do you think? Is this turnaround on special teams more from coaching or is it due to simple desire to make a tackle? Can winning the field position battle be enough to separate the Chargers from the competition in the AFC as the playoff race tightens up? Do you have confidence that Kaeding can produce a five-for-five game in the playoffs or does he need to prove his mental toughness first? Where does the duo of Kaeding and Scifres rank in terms of punter/kicker pairings across the NFL? Please leave your thoughts below!

December 3, 2010

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