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Old 01-07-2009, 08:30 AM   #1
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Default Special teams weigh in Chargers' favor

Special teams weigh in Chargers' favor
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Steelers piled up 410 yards of total offense when they played the San Diego Chargers in November. Yet they didn't score a touchdown, despite going up and down the field against the Chargers when they won the only 11-10 game in NFL history.

A similar scenario could play out in Sunday's rematch and AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field if the Steelers aren't sharper offensively and especially if they don't cut down on the penalties that plagued them in the teams' regular-season meeting.

The reason: Special teams could provide San Diego with a decided edge in field position and give the Steelers' offense a lot of real estate to cover.

Consider what happened to Indianapolis in Saturday's AFC wild-card game.

The Colts had the ball 11 times in their 23-17 overtime loss to the Chargers, and their average starting field position was their own 17-yard line. Mike Scifres turned in a net punting average of 51.7 yards, and all six of his punts pinned Indianapolis inside its own 20.

"They've probably got one of the best punters of all time," Steelers punter Mitch Berger said.

If Scifres' Ray Guy imitation is one reason why San Diego appears to have an advantage when it comes to punting and that aspect of the game could become critical Sunday if the weather gets bad the Chargers may also have an edge in the return game.

The Steelers ranked 29th in the NFL in kickoff return average (20.3 yards) and 31st in punt return average (6.0 yards) during the regular season. The Chargers, meanwhile, cracked the top 10 in each category, and the dynamic Darren Sproles returned a kickoff for a touchdown.

The news for the Steelers isn't all bleak when it comes to special teams, and Anthony Madison may have best summed up why earlier this week.

"We feel like we're an asset this year," said Madison, whose 25 special teams tackles led the Steelers in the regular season, "and not a liability."

Indeed, the kick-coverage units that leaked like an old faucet at times in 2007 have been shored up, to say the least. The Steelers were the best team statistically in the NFL during the regular season in covering kickoffs (19.1 yards allowed per return) and they were fourth in covering punts (6.2 yards per return).

"Right now, we're doing a great job of covering the fields and we all know how key special teams are," Madison said. "You look at these last few playoff games, and special teams have played a big role in teams winning or losing games."

The biggest concern for the Steelers when it comes to special teams might be their punting.

It has been uneven at best this season, and the Steelers cut veteran Mitch Berger in early November before bringing him back later in the month after his replacement, Paul Ernster, tanked.

The good news for the Steelers? Berger kicked considerably better near the end of the season, and he averaged just under 45 yards per punt in the final two regular-season games. The hamstring problems that plagued Berger earlier this season appear to be behind him.

"The last two or three weeks, I've felt as good as I did in the first part of the season," Berger said.

He could be the X-factor Sunday when the Steelers try to neutralize San Diego and the apparent advantage it has on special teams. Scifres, Berger's counterpart, has punted so well that the Steelers are going into the game with the mindset that they're going to have to put some long drives together and finish them which is something they didn't do in large part the last time they played San Diego because of the 115 penalty yards they amassed.

"Really there's no hocus-pocus or secret formula for getting the ball in the end zone," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We've got to put our guys in better position to capitalize on the field position."

That is if and when they get it.

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Old 01-07-2009, 09:02 AM   #2
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Default Re: Special teams weigh in Chargers' favor

Just kick it away from sproles and every little thing will be alright.

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