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SPECIAL TEAMS GET CHARGED UP

If the Buffalo Bills' special-teamers didn't realize they were in for a big test in San Diego, they found out the moment they looked in their locker stalls this week.

The Bills' special-teamers found a sign reminding them that the Chargers rank No. 1 in the NFL in kickoff coverage.

"It's a nice challenge for us and gives us perspective to see where we are as a kickoff team," said Bills fullback Phillip Crosby.

"Each week we've improved on kick coverage, and it's getting more and more fun," said linebacker DaShon Polk. "We know we've got our hands full this week."

Kickoffs won't be the only big test for the Bills. San Diego ranks seventh in the NFL in punt returns.

If this were last year's Bills special teams making the trip to San Diego, the Chargers could throw seven points on the scoreboard before the opening kickoff. As any Bills fan knows, Buffalo was worst in the NFL in both kickoff and punt coverage.

But this year's special teams units have made significant improvement. The Bills stand seventh in the NFL in net punting average. They are 10th in the NFL in kickoff return average by opponents.

"We're making progress," said special teams coach Danny Smith. "We're getting better. We shoot for the top, so I don't think we're finished yet. We know we've still got a long way to go. But we're working hard at it, and the players are doing what we're asking."

The Bills have yet to allow an opposing kickoff returner to cross midfield. The longest return on the Bills has been 38 yards.

San Diego's second-year kickoff returner, Ronney Jenkins, took the opening kick 88 yards for a touchdown last week against Denver. His 28.6-yard average is second in the league.

"Jenkins is a big-play guy," Smith said. "He's not a sprinter, but he's a return man. He can break tackles, he can outrun you. He can make you miss. He can change directions. He knows what he's doing."

San Diego's punt return man, Tim Dwight, is almost as dangerous. Dwight is tied for seventh in the NFL with a 12-yard return average. He took a punt return 84 yards for a score in the season opener against Washington.

Dwight was acquired by the Chargers from Atlanta as part of the trade that sent the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Falcons. Dwight, a 5-foot-9, 180-pounder, has returned three punts for touchdowns and also had a 94-yard kickoff return for a TD in the Super Bowl in January 1999.

"He does a good job of making himself small so he avoids hits," said Bills cornerback Chris Watson. "He's hard to get a good hit on."

In the past two games, Watson has teamed with former Pittsburgh Steeler Lance Brown at the gunner position on punt coverage. Those are the two wide coverage men who race downfield to get the returner. Brown has been a big plus to the coverage units. The Bills also have used Antoine Winfield, Ken Irvin and Nate Clements opposite Brown.

"I think you have to attribute a lot of our improvement to our special teams coach, Danny Smith," Brown said. "He really gets us fired up. That's how special teams coaches have to be. They have to be animated. They have to be crazy so your players go out there and play the same way."

Smith is in perpetual motion during practice, giving the wad of gum in his mouth a vicious workout and constantly shouting directions.

"He's a fireplug," said Crosby. "I believe he runs around in his sleep. He's always fired up, so he keeps us fired up."

"We have guys hungry this year on special teams," Polk said. "San Diego is No. 1, and they're coming into this game fired up after returning one last week. We have to lay it all out on the field."

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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