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Bisaccia aims to make Chargers special

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Posted Sept. 22, 2011 @ 5:54 p.m. ET
By Eli Kaberon

The Rich Bisaccia Era in San Diego didn't start the way anyone imagined it would.

Brought in from Tampa Bay last January as the man to fix the Chargers' awful special-teams unit that many blamed for ruining the team's 2010 season, Bisaccia could only stand on the sideline during the first 15 seconds of the team's first regular-season game on Sept. 11 vs. the Vikings and watch what unfolded in front of him in shock.

Minnesota's Percy Harvin brought the opening kickoff of the season out of his own endzone, dashed around the Bolts' coverage unit and finished it off 103 yards later with a trot across the other goal line. In the process, Chargers PK Nate Kaeding tore an ACL diving to make a tackle on Harvin, ending his season basically the moment after it began.

One play and the Chargers were down six points and one key player. Not the way the new coach wanted to start the new year.

Bisaccia wasn't brought to San Diego to allow touchdowns. And he sure wasn't brought in to make excuses. So after the Harvin touchdown, the coach did what he always has done in his 10 seasons as an NFL coach: Determine the problem and figure out the best way to fix it.

"I don't think in any situation any of us can hide from any of those things that have happened," Bisaccia told PFW. "We've all given up touchdowns, we've all given up big plays or else we haven't been around very long. So I think whether it happens to us in particular or happens to another team, we're all going to learn from that situation and what were the things that went wrong, what are the things we can improve upon on that particular play."

Formerly the assistant head coach/special-teams coordinator of the Buccaneers from 2002-10, Bisaccia was hired by the Chargers following one of the worst special-teams seasons any club has ever experienced.

Last season, the team allowed three kickoff-return touchdowns, one punt-return TD, had four punts blocked and because of injuries, employed five long-snappers. Opponents didn't miss a single field goal against the Chargers and, despite having to the No. 1 ranked offense and defense, San Diego missed the playoffs a year ago. Because of that, former special-teams coach Steve Crosby was fired following the season and Bisaccia was brought in shortly thereafter. The new man in charge knew he had a lot to fix.

He spent the extended offseason watching film of the Chargers, their opponents and even other teams around the league whose special-teams units he admired. With the lockout not allowing him to meet his players, Bisaccia pored over tape of potential draft choices and free agents and met with head coach Norv Turner on strategies to improve the unit, while also familiarizing himself with the AFC after spending nine years in the NFC. San Diego special-teams captain Jacob Hester said he and his teammates noticed a new approach right away when they returned to work once the lockout ended.

"I think he is really good for us, he holds the guys accountable, he holds himself accountable," Hester told PFW. "He's just a good guy for us to have in there. He's fiery. He's proud of what he does. He's given us a whole different attitude. I think he'll be good for us because each and every guy knows they have to be accountable for their job."

Hester, the Chargers' starting fullback, is on both the coverage and blocking teams for punts and kickoffs. He's one of several players who start on either offense or defense who contribute to Bisaccia's special teams. The coach calls his group the 'We-fense,' combining players of both sides of the ball into one complete unit. Unlike last season, when fringe players on the edge of the roster were the ones being asked to make important plays in the kicking game because of injuries, this year's special-teams units have playmakers who are as comfortable picking up a blitz for Philip Rivers or defending a tight end downfield as they are staying in their lanes on a kickoff or protecting punter Mike Scifres.

"I'm expecting guys to do their job with great effort, great attitude and we'll see what happens when the game is over," Bisaccia said. "We're putting a unit out there, we want to be attached to each other with a rope and see if we can play. Protect the punter, protect the kicker, protect the ball and see if we can make some tackles and play well."

Hester agreed, saying, "Rich is like, it doesn't matter if you're a starter on offense or defense, doesn't matter if you're 10 years in or a rookie, he expects a lot out of you and holds you to it no matter what your status is. Lot of guys appreciate that, and you know, we can continue to get better."

In the one full game and 59:45 the Chargers have played since the Harvin return, the special teams have improved. In the eight kickoffs since the touchdown, opponents, on average, have started drives at their own 22-yard line. Half of Scifres' punts have been downed inside the 20. And the team has signed veteran PK Nick Novak to replace Kaeding, though Novak has yet to kick a field goal for the club.

That doesn't mean the process of completely fixing the special teams in San Diego is completed. Bisaccia knows there's still plenty of work to be done on that front, with the Harvin touchdown being the prime example of that. Several Chargers players took poor angles on the play and tried to bring down Harvin, who made the Pro Bowl as a returner in 2009, with arm tackles, which resulted in Harvin having 50 yards of empty green grass in front of him when he broke midfield. Losing Kaeding on the return also will have a great impact on the unit, as the coach said he was expecting the two-time Pro Bowl kicker to "play better than he's ever played" in 2011.

For Bisaccia and his "We-fense," it's all about determining a problem and fixing it. The Chargers have Pro Bowlers on both sides of the ball, and the division appears to be theirs for the taking. If they get some great play out of their special teams, who knows where they could end up.

"I don't think in any line of work anyone can put higher expectation on me or on someone higher than we would have for ourselves," Bisaccia said. "You could end up with the No. 1 special-teams unit in the National Football League after 16 games and not be in the playoffs and things like that, so our goals are more tailored toward each specific game and its not really done by yardage or things of that nature, it's more done by what we need to do to win this game."

 

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