Insider Thursday Team Report

Divisional game’s third phase could prove biggest factor Sunday in San Diego.

Brad Smith will need to help the Jets win the special teams battle against the Chargers on Sunday.

Much has been  made of the impending matchup between the high-powered offense of the San Diego Chargers and the number one-ranked pass defense of your New York Jets that will take place in Sunday afternoon’s AFC Divisional playoff showdown in San Diego.

The reverse matchup has also been a hot topic – can Mark Sanchez play mistake-free football against the Chargers, while making enough big plays to put his team in a position to win?

These points have been analyzed by all every corner of the football-speaking world.  But every pigskin fan knows there’s three phases to every game, and the contest’s third phase, the special teams battle, could prove the most important area of Sunday’s clash.

We all remember Ted Ginn Jr. of the Miami Dolphins streaking down the Giants Stadium sidelines faster than a speeding bullet when the fish returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against the Jets earlier this season.  And while that certainly wasn’t the norm for coordinator Mike Westhoff’s group, Gang Green’s kickoff wasn’t exactly anything to write home about this season.

The unit finished 22′nd in the NFL this season in average kickoff return yardage, giving up 24.1 yards per return.  The Chargers have their own version of multi-talented running back Leon Washington in dangerous runner Darren Sproles, who handles the kick return duties for the Bolts.  Sproles’ speed is well documented, as is his ability to break big plays whenever he touches the ball.  So, to say this has the potential to be a problem for Gang Green might be understating it just a tad.

“We’ve got to step up our game,” head coach Rex Ryan said.  “We have too much talent to let people be bringing the ball out to our 50 (yard-line) and past and into our territory on kicks.  That doesn’t make any sense.  Mike Westhoff does a great job every week.  He’s a great leader.  He’s got a great plan, but we’ve got to get it done.  Whatever that is, we’ve got to find a way to get better at that, because this team right here doesn’t need an advantage in the kicking game.  Their offense is as explosive as it gets.  We don’t need them to have a short field.”

The Jets defense will already have their hands full with a multitude of mismatches created by the Chargers offense.  So it’s very important for the defensive aspects of the club’s special teams to have a solid afternoon.

“I don’t know if there as good as I’ve faced, but they’re good though,” Westhoff said.  “I like them.  Sproles reminds me a lot of Leon.  I don’t think he’s as strong as Leon, but he’s fast like that.  He’s certainly a talented guy, so yes, they are very talented.”

Containing the return game of the Chargers will be a major key in Sunday’s tilt, but if you’re looking for a glass-half-full viewpoint on the special teams situation, the Jets create some problems of their own for the home team.

Gang Green finished up the 09′ campaign fourth in the league with an average of 24.4 yards per kick return.  Brad Smith has already taken one kick to the house since assuming the return duties, and anything close to that average Sunday will give the Jets solid field position anytime the situation should arise.

Kickers Nate Kaeding and Jay Feeley are both rock-solid, so we’ve got a positive and a negative for each club.  The tiebreaker goes to the Bolts, however, in the form of their punt return game.

The Chargers averaged just over 11 yards per punt return, second in the NFL, while the Jets had the 26′th-ranked average yardage per punt, at 42 yards even.  This could also spell trouble for the J-E-T-S – if punter Steve Weatherford can’t neutralize the punt return game of San Diego, this could be another area where the Chargers might have the opportunity to explode for big plays.

The task the Jets face in San Diego is certainly a daunting one.  But not for all the reasons everyone is talking about.  If they’re not careful, Gang Green could come up on the short end of this game by making miscues in the phase of the game that’s often overlooked by those on the outside looking in.

INJURY UPDATE

Quarterback Erik Ainge was sent home from Thursday’s workout with migraine headaches, but was the lone casualty of the day.  Shaun Ellis was limited with a knee injury, and Howard Green (knee), David Harris (ankle) Mark Sanchez (knee) Thomas Jones (knee) Bart Scott (ankle) and Donald Strickland (quad) were all full participants, leaving the Jets ready to roll for Sunday.

MORE ACCOLADES FOR REVIS, MANGOLD

The awards keep piling up for all-world corner Darrelle Revis and dominant center Nick Mangold.  Both received first team NFL All-Pro nods this afternoon, with linebacker David Harris earning a spot on the second team.

Be sure to check back to JetsInsider.com throughout the rest of the week for all your news and updates leading up to Sunday’s big game.

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