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Strength against strength
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SAN DIEGO – The Chargers’ punt coverage team has been one of its hidden strengths this season.
It may sound unlikely for those who haven’t seen many San Diego games since last season, but the Bolts are among the league’s best this year at flipping field position with Mike Scifres and company, improving 28 spots in net average.
This week gives them an opportunity to cement that status by facing Chicago’s Devin Hester, who returned his NFL record 12th punt for a touchdown last week against Detroit.
Hester now has 18 special teams returns for touchdowns (five on kickoffs and one on a missed field goal) and is one return touchdown away from tying Deion Sanders’ NFL record.
“Their kicking game would keep you up at night,” Head Coach Norv Turner said of the Bears.
Scifres’ net average the last four games, though, is 46.0 yards. For reference, that’s more than two yards better than San Francisco’s Andy Lee, who leads the NFL this season.
Scifres (41.9) is fourth in the league and well above his career best. It would represent the second time he’s ever topped 40 net yards per punt in a season, and that includes six years as a Pro Bowl alternate. At 49.8 yards per punt, good for third in the NFL, he’s also more than three yards better than he’s ever been.
“I’m just comfortable,” explained Scifres, who signed a five-year contract extension in September. “The protection’s been awesome so I’ve had time back there to actually catch it and kick it. Our guys are covering their butts off and they’re going down there and making the tackles.”
Turner played coy when asked if guys like gunner Darrell Stuckey (seven special teams tackles) and Andrew Gachkar (a team-high eight special teams stops) will get their chance at doing so to Hester, or if the team will elect to kick the ball out of bounds or away from the most productive returner in history.
“We have a great punter. He has a great ability to hang the ball up in the air and he’s getting very good at placing it,” Turner said. “Game situation, field position, all those different things would tie into (how we handle Hester).”
Speaking of placement, Scifres tied a career long with a 71-yard boot Thursday against Oakland, but the punt spun forward upon impact and rolled to the end zone. It was Scifres’ lone touchback this season, though he’s placed 10 others inside the 20. Even that result took special circumstances – Scifres had blasted a 65-yard punt to the 1 and Antwan Barnes made a tackle at the 10, but a penalty on the Chargers led to a re-kick. Scifres speculated fatigue prevented the Bolts from downing his next attempt, and Raiders return man Denarius Moore did well to deflect Stuckey near the end zone.
Scifres clapped his hands in disgust when the ball crossed the goal line, one of the few things that went wrong for the punt team of late. Since touchbacks on punts were tracked every year beginning in the late ’70s, Donnie Jones is the only qualifying punter with a better average than Scifres’ 44.8 yards and less frequent touchbacks than Scifres’ 9.3 percent rate.
Hester represents a worthy adversary.
“Clearly you watch what the guy’s done in his career, he’s going to go down as the best returner to ever play in the NFL – to ever play football,” Scifres said. “As a punter, you’ve got to either hang it up and make him fair catch it or kick it out of bounds, neither of which are as easy to do as it is to say.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for the whole group.” Read