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Chargers give lousy special teams a kick in pants by addressing personnel

Chargers linebacker Kyler Fackrell during a preseason game.
One reason the Chargers invested in edge rusher Kyler Fackrell is his solid play on special teams, a unit that failed the club last season.
(Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)

His attention to detail is such that Derius Swinton II began his tenure with the Chargers by announcing his first mistake before making it.

“We talk about the three Fs of football — and it’s not going to be grammatically correct — but it sticks with the players,” the Chargers special teams coach explained. “We’re going to play fast. We’re going to play physical. And we’re going to play fundamentally sound.”

Being an attentive assistant coach, Swinton then made sure to issue the proper acknowledgement.

“My mom’s an English teacher,” he added. “So, phonetically, that’s correct. I’ll get a little credit for using the term ‘phonetically’ in a press conference. So that’s for mom.”

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This was the Chargers’ new special teams coordinator meeting local reporters for the first time in January.

Swinton introduced himself as an energetic, inspiring, positive light ... all traits that are vital given his assignment.

When the Chargers line up, the defense led by head coach Brandon Staley appears the same every down. That’s the beauty of this multifaceted approach.

The Chargers’ special teams in 2020 inspired little more than mockery, the team’s kicking units infamously failing more than once just to field the proper number of players.

By almost every measure, they ranked near the bottom leaguewide. The Chargers missed nine field-goal attempts and had three punts blocked.

One of those blocked punts was returned for a touchdown. They also surrendered a touchdown on a blocked field-goal attempt.

The 2020 Chargers went through four special teams coordinators, with then-head coach Anthony Lynn taking over for the final four weeks of the season.

Not surprisingly, new coach Brandon Staley emphasized the kicking game throughout training camp, the Chargers working daily on the basics and the most exact of situations.

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“We want to be really impactful on special teams,” Staley said. “A big part of impacting special teams is getting the right people in the right seats.”

The Chargers signed veteran edge rusher Kyler Fackrell in part because of his special teams experience. They added cornerback Ryan Smith for the same reason, although Smith will open the season on injured reserve because of a core muscle issue.

As recently as last week, they signed another player — defensive back Trey Marshall, formerly with Denver — because he can contribute on special teams. Marshall, too, has been dealing with an injury, to his ankle.

New Chargers coach Brandon Staley isn’t afraid to talk about the franchise’s lack of success. And he’s prepared to change their fortunes.

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“Special teams is everything,” defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill said. “We got to win there before we can win on the defensive end.”

The Chargers begin the season with a new kicker, Tristan Vizcaino, replacing Michael Badgley. They also have a new long snapper in veteran Matt Overton, who has played eight NFL seasons.

Vizcaino displayed the stronger leg in training camp and the preseason. On kickoffs, the Chargers preferred his potential in hang time and ball placement.

“He can create an advantage for us in the field-position game,” Staley said.

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Tristan Vizcaino kicks during warmups before a Chargers preseason game.
The Chargers like Tristan Vizcaino’s strong leg on kickoffs and hope they have more success on kicking this season.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Vizcaino has played one game in the NFL. He kicked for San Francisco in Week 17 last year.

“So much about field goals is just getting that experience,” Staley said. “And the only way you get the experience is to go out there and do it. We wanted to invest in that.”

The Chargers have core special teamers in players such as tight end Stephen Anderson and fullback Gabe Nabers, someone Staley called “a general” in the kicking game.

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Among their rookies, edge rusher Chris Rumph II and linebackers Nick Niemann and Amen Ogbongbemiga are among those who could contribute immediately, though it remains unclear who will be on the active roster Sunday at Washington.

With a new coaching staff comes a new offensive approach, but coaches know they still need Justin Herbert to make it all work.

“He’s got size,” Staley said of Ogbongbemiga, who was undrafted out of Oklahoma State. “And he can run for his size.” Staley added that the rookie could be a big factor on special teams.

“He’s the right guy to be coaching from a developmental standpoint,” Staley said.

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The Chargers also feel as if they have the right guy coordinating their special teams. Because Swinton is highly detailed, he also will help Staley with game management.

“When building special teams … I think it’s like making a meal,” Swinton said. “I don’t worry about what groceries I have. I just take the groceries that I have in my cabinet and I make the meal. I don’t care if I have fresh fruit or if the fruit’s a day old or a week old, as long as it’s not spoiled, we can make a meal.”

The Chargers just hope things turn out better in 2021, this franchise starving for improved special teams play.


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