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Danny Smith didn't have time to speak to the media this week. The usually accessible special teams coach of the Buffalo Bills was probably too busy attending to more pressing matters.

He no doubt spent hours reviewing the season-opening, 37-31 loss to the New York Jets, a game in which the Bills' failure to cover kickoffs was the difference.

Chad Morton scored twice on kickoff returns, including the game-winning 96-yarder in overtime.

The memory of that loss still gnaws at the Bills, who have a chance for redemption when they visit the Jets on Sunday.

"I'm looking forward to smacking them in the mouth a couple times on special teams and let them know that was a fluke and it's not going to happen again," said linebacker DaShon Polk. "I'm picturing that kickoff on Sunday. I hope we get to kickoff to start the game so we can go put some wood to him and let him know, "Hey man, don't think it's going to happen again.' "

Except for a couple of shaky outings, Buffalo's kick coverage has gotten better since the Jets debacle.

The Bills allow an average of 23 yards per kickoff return (25th in the National Football League) but have held six of their last nine opponents to 20 yards or less per return. The Bills yielded a mere 17.25 yards on kickoffs the past three games.

"We've made significant progress," said coach Gregg Williams. "Danny has done a very good job, as has all those guys, on some of the scheme wrinkles."

One of those wrinkles is directional kickoffs. Place-kicker Mike Hollis seeks height and distance while also angling the kick toward one side of the field to give the return man less room to maneuver.

"The idea is to kick it far directionally and force them to make a decision to run it straight up where they catch it or run across the field," Hollis said. "You don't want them to start close to our end zone. You want them to start as deep as we can get them.

"But as the weather gets colder, the balls aren't very good for kickers, so around the league you'll notice the kickoffs aren't going very far. It's up to the cover team to get down there as soon as we can and stop them from getting positive yardage."

Even on short kickoffs, Hollis is getting enough hang time to allow the coverage to get to the ball before the opposing team can set up a return.

Whether they are long or short, directional kickoffs are an effective way to limit the impact return specialists such as Morton can have on the game.

"That can pose you some problems at times," said Jets coach Herman Edwards. "It's tough in the fact that you have to set your wall a little tighter. They get down there a little faster and they've got good guys covering. I think (the Bills) have done a nice job of that and they're playing better."

Improved tackling has helped coverage. The players are also more disciplined as far as staying in their running lanes. The coverage teams have pretty much remained intact, and the players have developed a better feel for each other.

"It's a lot like the offensive line," Williams said. "Your kickoff coverage has to have time on the task together."

Morton still figures to test the Bills' coverage. He is third in the AFC and seventh in the NFL with a 25.6-yard average.

The Bills also must be on alert for Santana Moss, who has emerged as the NFL leader in punt returns with a 17.6-yard average. He had touchdown returns in back-to-back games against San Diego and Cleveland, the first player to do that since 1979 and only the third since 1970.

"I think the biggest attribute they both have is they hit the hole straight on," Bills return specialist Charlie Rogers said. "They don't take too many false steps and don't run laterally too much. Everything is north and south with them, and that's the key."

Like Morton, Moss is now seeing less returnable kicks. Morton said he's seen just about everything from teams trying to keep the ball out of their hands.

"It's like they're making stuff up for us," he said. "We're not surprised when teams don't kick it to us because we have chances of blowing it up on them. It's cool knowing guys respect you and worry about you. I like that."

The Bills would like nothing better than to keep Morton out of the end zone this time.

"We've covered kicks pretty well the last few weeks, so the guys are going to be fired up," Polk said. "We'll keep watching that tape, and as long we keep that energy going, we can go out there Sunday and make something happen."


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