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MANY HAPP RETURNS
BILLS PUNCH TICKET TO VICTORY WITH BIG PLAYS

Buffalo Bills special teams coach Bobby April knows something about great kick returners.

He coached Deion Sanders and Rod Woodson, two of the great return men in NFL history.

Never in his 25-year coaching career, however, has April enjoyed a three-headed return demon like he has with the Bills.

In a span of 2:52 of the third quarter Sunday, the Bills' special teams produced a 53-yard punt return by rookie Jonathan Smith, an 86-yard punt return for a touchdown by Nate Clements and a fumble recovery on a kickoff return.

The bomb-squad blitzkrieg sparked the Bills to a 37-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

"If there is a better special-teams unit in the league right now, I don't know who it is," said Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

The Bills had some great special-teams units under coach Marv Levy, but never have they had a return game like this one.

The Bills now have four returns for touchdowns, a single-season team record. Their 148 punt return yards against the Rams set a single-game team record. They are on pace to set a season team record for return average for both punts and kickoffs.

"I've had a lot of good players," said April, "but I've never been on a team that returned four for touchdowns."

A crowd of 72,393 at Ralph Wilson Stadium saw the Bills (4-6) rebound from their abysmal New England defeat to win their fourth straight home game. The Rams (5-5) lost for the third time in four games.

Smith, who returned a punt 70 yards for a touchdown last week, took the first punt of the third quarter, and weaved straight upfield through traffic, made four Rams miss and scampered down to the Rams' 5.

On the next play, Drew Bledsoe hit tight end Mark Campbell with a 5-yard TD pass to give the Bills a 24-17 lead.

It's unusual for teams to put two men deep on punt returns. But the Bills have been doing it the past three weeks because both Smith and Clements are dangerous.

"Jonathan is always going forward, and he's making his diagonal cuts at top speed," April said.

Smith was a seventh-round pick from Georgia Tech. He returned two punts for scores for the Yellow Jackets last year.

"He's got something special," April said. "I don't know exactly what it is. He's a special guy. Tom Modrak (the Bills' college scouting chief) and I didn't collaborate on him, but we both liked him. . . . I remember when we were drafting I was sitting there thinking, 'I hope he's there, I hope he's there, I hope he's there.' "

Clements' score was the second punt-return TD of his career. It came after the Bills' defense forced a quick punt, which Sean Landeta boomed 54 yards. Clements made one man miss, then zoomed down the right sideline. He did a flying somersault into the end zone.

"That was just some built-up excitement," Clements said.

"One guy was kind of coming at him, and he bounced it perfectly to get outside of him," April said. "And once he did the other (Rams) guys were just held up (by the blockers)."

Indeed, the punt return blockers, including Angelo Crowell, Josh Stamer, Mario Haggan, Joe Burns, Jason Peters and Coy Wire, had the Rams walled off.

Rian Lindell blooped the ensuing kickoff 39 yards downfield, and ex-Bill Erik Flowers muffed it. Peters, the Bills' 315-pound, tight-end-turned-tackle, recovered.

Peters, an undrafted rookie, was the Bills' "secret weapon" Sunday, making his debut on kickoff coverage. He might be the biggest man ever to cover kickoffs in the NFL, and he was involved in some massive collisions.

"I'll tell you, he just wears us out in practice," April said. "When they see Jason out there, guys on the opposing unit say (to a teammate), 'Hey, you get ahead of me on this one.' "

Using Peters is the kind of creativity the Bills expected when they hired April, one of the most respected special-teams coaches in the NFL. His contract was not renewed by the Rams last season, which added a bit of sweetness to Sunday's showing.

"Anytime you play somebody (you used to coach) you have a little incentive," April said.

The Bills' offense and defense had plenty of incentive after the 29-6 loss to New England.

The defense held Rams running back Marshall Faulk to a career-low 0.5 yards a carry -- 6 yards on 13 attempts. Rams quarterback Marc Bulger, director of the NFL's No. 4 pass offense, threw for 287 yards. But he threw three interceptions and was sacked six times -- three by safety Lawyer Milloy.

The Bills played a lot of Cover 2 zones, with Milloy and rookie Rashad Baker deep. They mixed in man coverage underneath.

St. Louis only had 98 yards in the second half.

The Bills' offense got three TD catches from Campbell. Willis McGahee rushed 20 times for 100 yards, his fourth 100-yard game in four home starts.

Drew Bledsoe was 15 of 24 for 185 yards with a rating of 108.5.

His best throw might have been a 54-yard flea flicker to Sam Aiken that set up a field goal to tie the game, 17-17, at the end of the first half. McGahee's pitch-back to Bledsoe was high and wobbly, and Bledsoe had to put all his power into the pass while taking a huge hit after the throw.

"I thought maybe he was going to keep it," Bledsoe said of McGahee. "He got up in there and then at the last second turned around and chucked it to me. By the time I looked up it seemed like Sam Aiken was in another county. I had to throw it pretty far."

The special teams took it from there.

"When you get big plays on special teams it shifts momentum," said linebacker London Fletcher. "Those things right there just electrifies and energizes your football team."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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