Special Teams Difference … Saturday Cup O’Chiefs

There’s been discussion all this week about Carson Palmer and the Raiders running game, and Richard Seymour and the tough defensive front of the Oakland defense.

Lost in the chatter has been one of the game’s facets that could likely decide Sunday’s encounter between the Chiefs and Raiders – the kicking game.

It certainly did last year at the Oakland Coliseum, when the Raiders ended up taking a 23-20 overtime victory. Yes, it was K Sebastian Janikowski’s 41-yard FG late in regulation that sent the game into overtime. And, it was Janikowski’s 33-yard FG that won the game early in overtime.

But it was more than that. The entire momentum of the game was changed with the second-half kickoff, when Oakland’s Jacoby Ford returned the ball 94 yards for a touchdown. Earlier in the game, the Chiefs lost their own return touchdown, when a 72-yard punt return by CB Javier Arenas for a score was wiped off the books due to a blocking in the back penalty against SS Eric Berry.

The Chiefs went from the Raiders end zone to their 21-yard line, lost yardage of 79 yards. Eventually, they got three points out of the possession, but that did not make up for having a touchdown wiped off the scoreboard.

“This is an easy week to see the importance of special teams,” head coach Todd Haley said. “All we have to do is put on the tape of the game out there. Last year that was essentially the difference in the game. They had a big return on us, we had a big return called back, and we fumbled a kick return.

“We did a number of things on special teams that really hurt us and cost us a chance to win that game last year. We looked at that game closely this week. I think our guys understand the things we must do and the things we can’t do to have a real good chance to be a good team.”

Special teams have been very important to the Raiders and their 4-2 start this season:

– K Sebastian Janikowski had a record-tying 63-yard FG against the Broncos in the season opener. Janikowski now shares the league record for longest field goal with Tom Dempsey and Jason Elam. On the season, he’s hit 12 of 13 FGs, missing from only 56 yards. Janikowski is 8 of 9 from 40 yards and out.

– P Shane Lechler tied a franchise record with a 77-yard punt in that game against Denver. It tied a record that was set in 1961 by the now forgotten P Wayne Crow. On the season, Lechler is averaging 53.1 every time he kicks the ball. That leads the league.

– Ford returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown against Cleveland, giving him four scores in 22 NFL games. He’s averaging 39.6 yards on kick returns, which would rank second in the NFL if he had enough chances to qualify; he’s had just seven returns. In those 22 games, Ford is already ranked among the top 10 kick returners in Raiders history.

– S Tyvon Branch blocked a FG attempt against Buffalo and LB Darryl Blackstock blocked a punt against Denver. LB Bruce Davis II deflected a punt against Houston.

– RB Rock Cartwright ran out of the punt formation 34 yards for a first down on a fake. The possession set up a Raiders FG.

– Lechler completed the first pass of his career, out of a fake field goal formation, finding TE Kevin Boss for a 35-yard touchdown.

Kicks, punts, returns, coverage, blocks, fakes – they’ve all been part of the Raiders special teams in the season’s first six games. About the only spot where they’ve shown a problem is in covering Lechler’s punts; he likes to boom them for his gross average, but that hurts the team net average – Oakland is giving up 15.9 yards per punt return thanks to a 90-yard score on a return by Denver’s Eric Decker in the opener.

The man who has made the most difference is Ford, a fourth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Coming out of Clemson, where he had three return scores during his college career, Ford lit up the Chiefs for that 90-yard TD, and followed last year with kickoff return TDs against Miami (101 yards) and Indianapolis (99 yards).

“He’s fast and if he gets a crease, he will hit it every time,” said LB Cory Greenwood, who is tied for the Chiefs lead in special teams tackles with four. “You can try to pin him in the corner and he’ll come back on you and head the other way.”

What the Raiders try to do with Ford is run middle returns or middle bounces, where he heads up the middle of the field and then bounces the return to either side where there’s a lane open. He’s the type of returner who not only can burn a coverage unit with his speed, but the Raiders block returns in a way that lures the coverage out of their lanes.

That’s when Ford can strike.

“You can’t get bunched up, you have to say in your area,” said Greenwood. “They’ll try to suck you in and get your body turned and once they do that, he just hits the crease running.”

Janikowski came up with a left hamstring injury at the end of the week, and the Raiders brought several kickers in for tryouts and to have a potential replacement if he can’t go. It’s hard to believe it would affect his ability to kick, but it might limit his range and distance.

Working out for the Raiders were Rhys Lloyd, Ricky Schmitt and Dave Rayner. All three are better known for their kickoff prowess than FGs, so the Janikowski may be able to kick the placements, but somebody else might handle kickoffs.

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