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Special-teams coverage hurting Chargers

In the aftermath of the San Diego Chargers' second loss in three games, the knee-jerk observation is that wide receiver Vincent Jackson's(notes) absence is hurting the team.

Not exactly.

Not that playing without Jackson – serving a league-mandated three-game suspension in addition to being embroiled in a contract dispute – is helping the Chargers. Right now, San Diego is basically using two players (Patrick Crayton(notes) and Buster Davis) to fill Jackson's void. That said, the Chargers have been OK throwing to wideouts, completing 36 passes for 645 yards (an impressive average of 17.9 yards per reception) to the combination of Crayton, Davis, Malcom Floyd and Legedu Naanee(notes).

The real problem in San Diego is a special-teams coverage unit (both on punts and kickoffs) that is, well, to put it mildly, just awful.

Through three games, the Chargers have allowed a trio of returns for scores, including the two kickoff returns by Leon Washington(notes) on Sunday at Seattle. In the opener, they allowed a Kansas City-record 94-yard punt return by Dexter McCluster(notes). Throw in second-quarter punt returns of 36 and 24 yards by Chiefs rookie Javier Arenas(notes), and the Chargers' coverage unit has been a joke.

So what gives? One of the key problems is that the Chargers' roster is not nearly as deep as it was in previous years. In the past, the Chargers were playing guys on special teams who were almost good enough to start on other teams. Now, veteran special-teams ace Kassim Osgood(notes) and others are performing elsewhere.

The other issue is clearly schematic. While special-teams coach Steve Crosby has spent nine years with the Chargers and generally done a solid job, there's no question that players are simply missing assignments, creating gaping holes.

Or as one opposing special-teams coach said Monday after taking a quick look at the Chargers: "They're just bad right now. The talent is down and the coverage is just bad. We all go through it, and the only way you solve it is to shake up your depth. You cut a couple of guys, send a message and, if you have a good team, it gets fixed.

"If you don't have a good team, well, you ain't going to be around to fix it."

QUICK SLANTS
QUICK SLANTS

Henne comes up big

While the Miami Dolphins missed a huge opportunity on Sunday night in a narrow loss to the New York Jets, they got closer to answering what is really the most important question facing the team: Is Chad Henne(notes) good enough to be a franchise quarterback? After a report just before the season that Bill Parcells – who orchestrated the drafting of Henne in 2008 – was down on him, questions about Henne's future swirled.

Henne has thrown for 659 yards this season.
(Steve Mitchell/US Presswire)

In the first two games of the season, Henne was mediocre (the team won but Henne didn't do much in wins over the Bills or Vikings). On Sunday night, the Dolphins put a lot on Henne's shoulders against the Jets after getting behind 14-0. Henne finished with a career-best night, completing 26 of 44 passes for 363 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

The caveat, of course, is that the team lost and Henne's decision to throw to tight end Anthony Fasano(notes) on the final play probably wasn't a great idea (although he didn't call the play). The bottom line is that Henne looked like a franchise quarterback every bit as much as Mark Sanchez(notes) did for the Jets. Both guys have a long way to go, but there's promise.

It's the kind of promise that could make the whole Parcells era worth the time. Over the previous 10 seasons, the Dolphins basically got karma payback for being in such good hands with Dan Marino for 17 years (and Bob Griese before Marino). They have gone through one schlep after another. Finally, they may have a legit signal-caller to lead the way.

Or as head coach Tony Sparano explained Monday: "I thought [Sunday night], at times, the game really slowed down for him against a good defense that was showing him a lot of pictures. Seeing it really clear, got to the second and third parts of progressions pretty consistently on the evening. I thought [he] threw some, about five or six like legitimately big-time throws during the course of this game – back-shoulder throws or really big throws or throws he had to stand in there and take a punch in the mouth on. A couple of those type of things that help you win football games."

Top five
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0):
Three games, three wins, 10 turnovers forced. Wow. It will be hard to maintain this level, but that's tremendous production.
2. Indianapolis Colts (2-1): For the first time in his career, Peyton Manning(notes) has opened the season with zero interceptions in the first three games.
3. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0): OK, I'm not sure I believe in them, but the Chiefs are fourth in the NFL in scoring differential, having outscored opponents by 30 so far.
4. Atlanta Falcons (2-1): The only loss so far is a brutal overtime game in the opener against Pittsburgh which the Falcons easily could have won.
5. Green Bay Packers (2-1): Sorry, Chicago fans, but I still think the Packers are better even if the Bears won Monday night. The Packers beat themselves.

Bottom five
28. Detroit Lions (0-3):
For the first time this season, the Lions really weren't that competitive and didn't have a chance to win. They need Matthew Stafford(notes) back on the field.
29. San Francisco 49ers (0-3): For all those who thought the offensive problems were solved in the New Orleans game, you were sadly mistaken.
30. Cleveland Browns (0-3): They gave Baltimore a pretty good run. In fact, they pretty much ran it down the Ravens' throats with Peyton Hillis(notes).
31. Carolina Panthers (0-3): Whether it's Matt Moore(notes) or Jimmy Clausen(notes) at quarterback, the Panthers are pretty much putrid right now.
32. Buffalo Bills (0-3): They lost another game, but the fans got a really good look Sunday at why Buffalo drafted C.J. Spiller(notes).

This and that

Memo to Oakland Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes): While it's nice to see you playing better, stop begging for pass-interference penalties on every route. It only makes you look ridiculous. Over the past two games, Heyward-Bey has begged officials for interference calls at least five times … and that's just in the times I've been watching the Raiders. Heyward-Bey did get one important interference call in the game at Arizona, but he didn't have to beg for that one.

Photo
Photo

Tanard Jackson(notes)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers severely missed safety Tanard Jackson, now serving a one-year suspension for violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, in the loss to Pittsburgh. Jackson's replacement, rookie Cody Grimm(notes), was badly victimized on the Steelers' first touchdown, a deep throw to Mike Wallace(notes). Later, Grimm was run over by quarterback Charlie Batch(notes). Not a good opening. But the real disaster in the Jackson story is that he has probably cost himself any chance of ever getting a really lucrative contract. Jackson, who was in the fourth and final year of his contract, will now have to wait until 2012 to become a free agent. Worse, Jackson will probably need two years to regain any confidence from another team, even though he's really talented. Throw in that safety is generally a low-priority position and it's fair to say that Jackson threw away anywhere from $10 million to $15 million in possible earnings. "Only the top five guys at that position ever get paid," said Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber(notes), who was obviously upset by the news. "Tanard had a chance, but it's going to take awhile now, if ever."

After watching the end of the first half of the Chargers-Seahawks game, I have one simple question for Seattle coach Pete Carroll: What are you thinking?

On the flip side, give Jets coach Rex Ryan a lot of credit for challenging for a 12-men-on-the-field penalty against the Dolphins on Sunday with two minutes left. The strategy is a little tough to explain in brief. However, Ryan was basically in a no-risk situation with the challenge. If he won the challenge, he had a chance to salt the game or lose a timeout he wasn't going to need on his last-chance challenge in regulation. Very smart work by Ryan.

Having talked about Henne before, there was an interesting comment he made last week about the impact he's allowed to have on the play-calling. Basically, he doesn't have any, he said. "No, because Coach Sparano says unless you want to be up here until 12 o'clock at night and getting here at five o'clock [in the morning] … " While I understand some of that sentiment, it's important that the coaches eventually give Henne some responsibility and ownership of the process.