COSTA MESA, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Chargers have made improvement in many areas during Brandon Staley's first season as coach, but special teams continues to be one department that generates major concerns.
Staley is hoping a new returner and kicker help turn things around.
The Chargers signed return specialist Andre Roberts during their bye last week. On Tuesday, they brought in kicker Dustin Hopkins following a tryout. Both will make their debuts on Sunday when Los Angeles hosts New England.
Los Angeles is last in the league in average start position after kickoffs (its 21 yard line) and has had a league-high 10 drives start inside the 20 after kickoffs.
Roberts should help rectify that. The 11-year veteran — who began the season with Houston — has made the Pro Bowl the last three seasons as the AFC's return specialist and was an All-Pro selection in 2018. Over the last four seasons, he leads the league in total return yards by more than 1,300 yards and has returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns.
“This is the first time that I’m joining a team in the middle of the season, but I have been to a lot of new teams from year to year," Roberts said. "It’s just getting to know guys, letting them get to know you a little bit; about your family, about where you are from, how you play the game."
The move to Roberts should also stabilize kick returns, where the Chargers had been using a committee approach. K.J. Hill, who was released to make way for Roberts, had been the punt returner.
Staley said having a returner who can handle both kickoffs and punts was a huge factor in signing Roberts.
“That’s a very big asset if you can have it. I think that he can improve both phases of return, and we need it,” Staley said.
The move to Hopkins — who was released by Washington after six games this season — was a bigger surprise because of Staley's steadfast support of Tristan Vizcaino. But with the Chargers at 4-2 in the wide-open AFC playoff race, the decision to go with a veteran kicker took on more importance after Vizcaino missed five extra points in six games.
Hopkins also has a better leg than Vizcaino on kickoffs. Receiving teams took a touchback on 22 of Hopkins' 31 kickoffs compared to 13 of Vizcaino's 31.
“We felt like with his experiences, being a starting NFL kicker for six seasons, and being a guy that has kicked in playoff games, that that would be an advantage for us," Staley said.
Besides making changes at returner and kicker, Staley and special teams coach Darius Swinton have other areas of concern on the coverage and return teams. Three of Vizcaino's extra-point attempts were nearly blocked due to a free rusher coming from the right edge. Staley said the team is looking at both personnel and technique to rectify that problem.
Special teams was a huge factor in New England's 45-0 rout of the Chargers last season. Gunner Olszewski returned a punt for a touchdown and Cody Davis blocked a long field goal attempt, allowing Devin McCourty to pick up the loose ball and go for 44 yards for a score on the last play of the first half.
Olszewski comes into this week's game third in the league with an 11.1-yard average on punt returns.
NOTES: S Nasir Adderley (hip) and WR Mike Williams (knee) were full participants in Wednesday's practice with LB Drue Tranquill (chest) limited. DL Justin Jones, who has missed the past five games due to a calf injury, also practiced and could come off injured reserve this week.
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