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Jets' special-teamers eager for Sproles challenge

Darren Sproles #43 of the San Diego Chargers

Darren Sproles #43 of the San Diego Chargers carries for a first down against the Tennessee Titans. (December 25, 2009) Photo Credit: Getty Images

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - The first play of the Jets' first playoff game did not go the way they wanted it to. It was a long kickoff return, the second in two weeks by the Bengals, and set up what could have been an opening-drive touchdown.

The defense forced a turnover and saved the points from popping up on the board last Saturday, but the Jets are very much aware that against the Chargers this week, they might not be that lucky.

"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."

So not only are the Jets' special-teams units charged with doing their jobs better, they're going to have to do it against one of the most explosive returners in the game: Darren Sproles.

The Chargers' super-squirt returned 26 punts an average of 7.0 yards this season, his longest a 77-yard touchdown. He also has returned 54 kickoffs for 1,300 yards, an average of 24, with a long of 66. Last year he almost single-handedly beat the Colts in a wild-card game, totaling 328 all-purpose yards.

Sproles is a dangerous weapon, but the Jets' special-teamers sound ready.

"He's one of the best guys in the league at returning," Wallace Wright said. "But we know if we do our job we shouldn't have any problems."

Said James Ihedigbo: "For us it doesn't matter who's back there. 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."

For the Jets to win Sunday, they'll have to stop the Chargers and the highest-scoring offense in the NFL. That means forcing them to go on longer drives that can be clamped down before they turn into points, or making the Chargers settle for field goals instead of touchdowns.

"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, so it boils down to special teams."

No matter how much they talk about not caring who is returning the punts and kickoffs, the Jets will have to be extra careful in dealing with Sproles. Special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff had plenty of praise for him.

"First of all he's a gutsy guy, he's a tough little guy," 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."

How do you stop someone like that? The Jets don't plan on shying away and kicking the ball out of bounds on punts or trying to keep it away from him on kickoffs.

"You don't try to kick the ball to a certain corner or try to pin him," Ihedigbo said. "He gets the ball in his hands, we have to go down there and tackle him."

The Jets have some experience against Sproles. In a Week 3 game last year, they held him to no punt returns and two kickoff returns, none of them longer than 22 yards.

"We've played well against him the last couple of times we played against him," Westhoff said. "Particularly last year, we covered the heck out of him. Hoping to do the same."

And what would count as containing Sproles? Is it just 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. In our opinion, containing him is making him have nowhere to run. If everybody plays their lane and contains him, we'll be fine."

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