Charger Special Teams Forcing Rivers and Defense to Dig Deep

Darren Feeney@DFEEN15_SDCorrespondent IOctober 12, 2010

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 13:  Dexter McCluster #22 of the Kansas City Chiefs returns a punt for a touchdown as punter Mike Scifres #5 of the San Diego Chargers defends during the 1st half of the game against on September 13, 2010 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Stop me when you've heard this story before: The San Diego Chargers are off to a slow start to the season with a 2-3 record. What's different this time around is how they've arrived at that record.

It takes all three facets—offense, defense and special teams—to render success in the National Football League.

For the Chargers, the former have been exceptional, video-game like numbers. The latter has been atrocious.

San Diego boasts the league's No. 1 offense at 461.8 yards per game. No other team is within 40 yards of the Chargers, and only the Cowboys and the Colts are within 75.

The Chargers also have the league's No. 2-ranked defense at 246.2 yards per game allowed—only 1.6 yards per game behind the league-leading Giants.

Through the first five games, San Diego has out gained their opponents by 1,078 yards. Until now, no team in NFL history had ever out gained its first five opponents by over 500 yards while posting a losing record.

The 'Not-So' Special Teams

How is this a sub-.500 team, tied for last place in the AFC West?

Look nowhere else than the league's worst special teams unit for that answer.

The Chargers have surrendered six non-offensive touchdowns this year. That's 42 points out of the 106 they have allowed.

In Week 1 against the Chiefs rookie Dexter McCluster returned a 94-yard punt return for the eventual game-winning touchdown. Fellow Rookie Javier Arenas also returned two punts for 60 yards in the second quarter. San Diego nearly doubled up Kansas City in the yardage department, 389-197, but lost 21-14.

In Week 3 Seattle's Leon Washington returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a 27-20 upset over the Chargers. San Diego out gained the Seahawks by 247 yards, and became the first team in over 70 years to allow two kickoff return touchdowns and a punt return touchdown in their first three games.

The special teams unit didn't get any better Week 5 in Oakland where the Chargers fell 35-27, despite outgaining the Raiders by 227 yards. The Chargers first two drives ended in blocked punts. The first was deflected into the back of the end zone for a safety and the other was returned for a touchdown.

Through the first five games Chargers punter Mike Scifres has had three punts blocked. Before this season Scifres had one punt blocked in 393 career attempts.

Despite the, "not-so," special team units' performance, special team coach Steve Crosby's job appears safe.

When asked in Sunday's post-game news conference if Crosby was in danger of losing the job he has held for nine seasons, head coach Norv Turner replied, "Don't be silly. I have great respect for what he's done and he does. Steve Crosby's our special teams coach and will be."

Players' job security, on the other hand, is another story.

Cornerback Cleatis Gordon noticeably whiffed on a tackle on the opening kickoff to Arizona's LaRod Stephens-Howling as he raced on for 89 yards.

Gordon was cut two days later.

Safety C.J. Spillman, who was expected to fill the big shoes of three-time pro bowler Kassim Osgood, contributed significantly to the Chargers' woes on special teams Sunday in Oakland, missing multiple tackles. He has also been released.

Although he won't appear on special teams, left tackle Marcus McNeill was added to the 53-man roster and is nearing a five-year contract extension. To make room for McNeill, the Chargers released cornerback Fred Bennett who was inactive Sunday and had been struggling covering kicks.

Crosby is clearly aware of the changes his teams have undergone—among them the loss of Osgood to free agency, Larry English to a foot injury and Mike Tolbert and Brandon Siler having to play more from scrimmage and less on kicks.

But if the trend continues, the Chargers will be forced to line up some starters on the special teams unit.

Inside linebacker and team captain Stephen Cooper is willing to help.

"I talked to him (Crosby) on the plane," Cooper told the North-County Times. "I told him, 'I'm ready to go on punt, kickoff, whatever you need, even if I have to take a play off for defense.' "

Cause For concern?

Ongoing special teams woes and turnovers are overshadowing a sensational start by quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates.

Rivers leads the league in passing yards (1,759), yards per attempts (9.61), touchdowns (11) and yards per game (352).

Gates, River's favorite target, leads the league in touchdown receptions (seven) and is fourth in yards (478).

Since Rivers took over in 2006, however, the Bolts have a history of strong finishes.

Last year San Diego also started 2-3 but won their final eleven games. In 2008 the Chargers limped to a 4-8 record but still won the division. In 2007, a 1-3 start concluded with an 11-5 record, and in '06, the Chargers won their final 10 games.

At some point, one must expect the special teams mistakes to go away and for the Chargers to dominate through their potent passing attack and above-average defense.

In an AFC West division that is still up for grabs, it's that time of the season for the Chargers to kick it into gear.


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