San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles (43) hurdles Washington...

San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles (43) hurdles Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall while gaining 12 yards during the first quarter. (January 3, 2010) Credit: AP

When Darren Sproles gets the ball on offense, the Jets will have their big barrels pointed at him: Bart Scott, David Harris and the rest of the tackling machine that is the Jets defense.

But Sproles might be just as dangerous on special teams where he returns both kickoffs and punts for the Chargers. And for the Jets to stop him in that area, they'll need to rely on some rather unsung players. Guys like Wallace Wright, James Ihedigbo and Ryan Fowler who star in football's forgotten facet. Are they ready?

"For us it doesn't matter who's back there," Ihedigbo said. "He's a great player, very explosive, does a lot of great things with the ball in his hands. But at the end of the day we have to go out there and play football."

The Jets had some issues on special teams in their last two wins over the Bengals, both of them including long kickoff returns. The Jets know that against the potent Chargers, that can't happen.

"We have too much talent to let people bring the ball out to our 50 and past it," Rex Ryan said. "Their offense is as explosive as it gets. We don't need them to have a short field."

"Everyone has talked about it the last couple weeks that we need to tighten up some of our coverage stuff, and we will," Fowler said. "I'm sure the guys on the kickoff team will accept that challenge with a new sense of motivation or responsibility."

Sproles should be enough to get their attention. The Chargers' super squirt has returned 26 punts this season an average of 7.0 yards, his longest a 77-yard touchdown. He's also returned 54 kickoffs a total of 1,300 yards with a long of 66. Last year he almost single-handedly beat the Colts in a wild card game, totaling 328 all-purpose yards.

"First of all he's a gutsy guy, he's a tough little guy," Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff said. "He's got a great burst, very good vision, he sees things well, and he's a challenger. He'll challenge you.

"What he does more than anything when you watch him, he's full speed, he's full go," Westhoff continued. "He's not a guy who dances. He gets it and goes."

The Jets need to contain him. But what does containing him mean? Keeping him out of the end zone? On his own side of the field?

"We feel like containing him means making him a non-factor in the game," Wright said. "We don't want him to get outside the 20 if we can help it."

So while all of the outside focus for the game will be on one of the NFL's premier offenses trying to score against one of its top defenses, Wright knows where this game could really be decided.

"We know as we get deeper and deeper in the playoffs, it's a game of field position," Wright said. "Everybody is good, everybody's got good offenses, good defenses. It boils down to special teams."

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