It was a tale of two punts for the Chargers’ special-teams units Sunday, one a line drive up the middle off the foot of Denver’s Riley Dixon, the other a high fly ball to deep center field off the foot of the Chargers’ Drew Kaser.
The first was carried into the end zone by Chargers speedster Travis Benjamin for a 65-yard touchdown return in the first quarter. The second was somehow kept out of the end zone by Austin Ekeler, who downed Kaser’s 69-yard blast in the third quarter at the Broncos’ one-yard line.
Both plays were instrumental in the Chargers’ 21-0 victory over the Broncos, a game in which the Chargers’ special teams, a sore spot for most of the season, shined at StubHub Center.
“Oh, man, the special teams were lights out,” strong safety Jahleel Addae said. “The coach has been looking for that all season. He’s asked the special teams to change the game for us, and they did today.”
A month ago at StubHub Center, the special teams played their worst half of the season, committing three costly penalties and allowing a 42-yard kickoff return in a 24-10 loss to Kansas City.
Their first half Sunday was their best 30 minutes of football this season, and the Chargers carried that strong play up until the fourth quarter, when they allowed Denver’s Brendan Langley to return a kickoff 61 yards, their only blip on an otherwise spotless afternoon.
“I wish we had that one back, but they finished in the plus today,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “That was our goal, for special teams to step up and make a play to help us win the game, and they did.”
The game began with Michael Davis, who had three special-teams tackles, dropping Langley at the nine-yard line on the opening kickoff. Midway through the first quarter from the Denver 19, Dixon hit a low punt that bounced about 10 yards in front of Benjamin.
The return man fielded the ball on a hop, took a few steps to his right and cut quickly up the middle, where he found a wide expanse of turf on his way to the end zone and a 7-0 lead.
“That was amazing,” receiver Keenan Allen said. “Any time the offense doesn’t touch the field and we get six points, that’s great.”
Benjamin said he might have thrown off the Broncos by fielding the ball on a hop.
“When they see the ball hit the ground, they think I’m going to let it bounce or let it roll,” Benjamin said. “Once I got up under it in one or two steps and got my foot up ground, it was a great play. Sometimes on the first hop, they’re not in their lanes. On the first hop, they spread out and the middle is open.”
Benjamin added a 20-yard punt return late in the first quarter, and Kaser had an outstanding first half, averaging 56.0 yards on four punts, including a 64-yarder from his 15-yard line with two minutes left in the second quarter.
Early in the third, with the Chargers at their 30-yard line and holding a 14-0 lead, Kaiser tied a career high with a 69-yard punt that sailed over the head of return man Hunter Sharp and appeared headed for the end zone.
But the ball hit the ground at the two-yard line and bounced straight into the air, giving Ekeler, the right gunner on the play, just enough time to get under the ball, catch it and tiptoe in front of the goal line, downing the ball at the one.
“Whenever the football hits the ground like that and bounces straight up, that’s just luck,” Kaser said. “That was someone from above looking down on me there.”
Ekeler said he was “not expecting the ball to be punted that far.” When the ball hit the ground, he thought it had bounced into the end zone.
“I kept finishing down the field just in case, and sure enough, it popped right up to me at the one,” Ekeler said. “You can’t really practice that kick, but you practice those situations, where you try to catch it without going into the end zone.”
The Broncos mustered one first down on the ensuing possession but were stopped on a third-down play and forced to punt from their 19.
“Any time you can flip a field and help out the defense is huge,” said Kaser, who averaged 51.6 yards on eight punts and placed three inside the 20-yard line. “And to go from the 30-yard line to the one-yard line, that was a big play.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna