Spotlight could find Scifres, Sproles again in Pittsburgh

It made sense that one of the first congratulatory text messages Mike Scifres received last Saturday night came from a fellow punter.

Oakland's Shane Lechler wanted his San Diego counterpart to know that his performance did more than help propel the Chargers to the divisional round of the playoffs. With a prime-time television audience watching, Lechler wrote, it reminded millions of people how truly important great punting can be to the outcome of a game.

Scifres' right leg was the biggest difference in the Chargers' 23-17 overtime wild-card victory against Indianapolis because it consistently buried the Colts deep in their own territory. Scifres set an NFL playoff record by having all six of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line (including five inside the 11) while limiting the Colts to a paltry 6 yards in returns.

Thanks to his efforts, the Chargers dominated field position all night, which severely hampered the efforts of three-time league MVP Peyton Manning and the rest of Indianapolis' explosive offense.

"He's the best defensive weapon that they've got," Bills special teams coach Bobby April said of Scifres. "Their defensive coaches might be offended by that statement, but he's absolutely the greatest defensive weapon the Chargers have."

Given that the Chargers are traveling to Pittsburgh to face the best defense in the NFL Sunday, they'll need every weapon they can get to hold their own in the battle for field position.

"It's going to be a great game," Scifres said. "And the better the field position is for us, the better the chances are for us."

He isn't necessarily expecting a repeat of what he did against the Colts. After all, there were some fortunate bounces in that game, including one at the end of a 67-yard punt that allowed the ball to be downed at the Colts 7 after landing at the 5.

On Scifres' final punt, with 2:50 left in regulation and the Chargers trailing 17-14, the ball landed at the Indianapolis 1 and then, incredibly, spun sideways out of bounds. The Colts eventually punted, Darren Sproles had a 26-yard return, and the drive ended with Nate Kaeding's tying field goal.

"You don't go to the stadium thinking that that's going to happen," said Scifres, finishing his sixth NFL season. "You couldn't draw that up or script it. I've been on the flipside of so many balls that have flipped forward and gone into the end zone for a touchback."

Still, his talent, though not yet recognized as Pro Bowl-worthy (Lechler will represent the AFC in Hawaii), is hardly based on lucky bounces. Scifres has one of the strongest legs in the NFL, and consistently gets exceptional hang time that enhances the efforts of the Chargers' punt coverage. He also can make the ball do what he wants it to do, especially when kicking from around midfield.

"He's able to nail you down in there," April said. "He's got a way of punting that the ball hits the ground and kind of comes back. There aren't that many balls that hit and roll into the end zone on this kid. He's a nightmare for the opposing offense."

"Having the leg strength helps out a lot," Scifres said. "And then it's a matter of just being able to stay relaxed on every punt and not trying to swing as hard as you can. If you play golf and you get up on the tee box and you swing as hard as you can, the chances of hitting a good drive are slim to none. As you go back and just relax and swing easy and make solid contact with the ball, you're going to get the hang time that you need and the yardage that you need."

The Steelers' defense figures to do more than its share to help provide favorable field position for Ben Roethlisberger and the rest of Pittsburgh's offense.

But it will be up to the Steelers' special teams to provide the necessary support by countering the two primary ways the Chargers impact where drives start: Scifres and the ultra-quick Sproles, who also will start at running back if injured LaDainian Tomlinson doesn't play.

Scifres figures to pose a larger problem because the Steelers rank near the bottom of the league in kickoff and punt returns. On the other hand, thanks to the fearlessness of players such as Anthony Madison, Pittsburgh ranked first and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in kickoff and punt coverage.

"He's going to dramatically change field position," Steelers special teams coach Bob Ligashesky said of Scifres. "And we've just got to be able to hold up (the Chargers' punt coverage) a little bit longer than normal because of the distance and hang time that Mike brings to the table. He put the opponent inside the 20 six times last week, and that affects the play-calling and it affects how the offense comes out on the field. It also affects the energy and the momentum of the game."

The 5-foot-6 Sproles is a constant threat to go the distance on punts and kickoffs. During the Steelers' 11-10 home victory over San Diego on Nov. 16, he returned one kickoff for 16 yards.

Ligashesky's goal is to again minimize the impact of Sproles and the rest of the Chargers' return game.

"In all aspects of our coverage we have to make sure we do a good job," he said. "No. 1, we have to protect and then make sure that we fan the field and stay in our lanes and squeeze and converge on the ball with good lane discipline. We also have to make sure we're good tacklers in this game because he brings the ability to make you miss, but he's hard to tackle because of his stature."

Scifres and Steelers punter Mitch Berger could have issues with the weather Sunday. The forecast for Pittsburgh calls for temperatures in the mid-20s, with a few snow showers and winds around 13 mph.

"Of course, it's going to be cold and windy and the ball's not going to travel as it would (in San Diego), but you've just got to go out and relax and do your best and try to beat the elements," Scifres said. "There's not much you can do (to compensate). Your feet are frozen, the ball is frozen, and you don't really feel it come off your foot. When you're punting into the wind, you try to cut the perfect spiral through the wind and when you're punting with it, you just try to get it up in the air and let the wind take it the rest of the way."

Scifres' first time punting at Heinz Field was in November. The temperature at kickoff was 35 and there was heavy snow in the first half, with 14-mph winds. But he handled the conditions well, having his only two punts downed at the Steelers' 9 and 14. Both drives ended with a punt.

Scifres plans to go out on the field a little earlier than usual to get a feel for the conditions and plan accordingly. He insists that no matter what Mother Nature brings his way, he'll be prepared to do his job as well as possible.

"You always go into a game confident, no matter what the conditions are," he said.

April expects nothing less from Scifres, adding, "I think he's going to be just huge."

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