San Diego Charger Diagnosis: Coverage team

The San Diego Chargers won their first division title in a decade. In honor of the "worst to first" or "rags to riches" it would be fitting to analyze three players who have made a big impact in their own way, but are some of the least known players in San Diego.

The Chargers started off as a team of "no-names" but inevitably gained recognition throughout the season. The contributions of players such as Kassim Osgood, Hanik Milligan, and Robb Butler have not been documented, but have been vital in this story book season for San Diego.

The reason these players do not get a lot of publicity is because they have made their impact in special teams coverage. Special team stars generally are the kicker, punter, or return-man but not the coverage team. The Chargers have had incredible success this year because they have consistently won the field position battle. For every punt Mike Scifres booms down field the Charger coverage team has done an equally terrific job containing the returner. How many times has one seen a monster punt negated due to the kicker out kicking his own coverage?

Osgood has been a true unsung hero in special teams this year. He is the reason many booming kicks have been contained against some of the best return men in the league. Osgood has a combination of size and speed which makes him ideal in punt coverage. He is an extremely physical receiver as well. There are very few defensive backs that can out muscle him in this league. He does a great job of knocking the defender aside leaving a clear path to the punt returner. In addition, Osgood is very sure-handed and uses his speed well.

Osgood maintains a great sense of balance and is rarely "out-juked" by the returner. Because of his long wing span and his disciplined footwork Osgood can almost get his hands on anyone that comes within a two or three yard radius. Osgood's ability as a sure-tackler has helped the special teams tremendously this season also. If he finds himself in an awkward position and cannot make the solo tackle himself, Osgood has done a good job slowing the returner down allowing his teammates to come in and finish the job.

One of the hardest hitters on special teams coverage is Hanik Milligan. Milligan is a true head hunter who plays both kick-off and punt coverage with reckless abandon. Milligan's story is well known amongst the Charger fans. Many felt he was a steal in the sixth round but never got to prove his ability due to a season-ending knee injury last year. In addition to being a head-knocker Milligan is a very smart player as well. He uses his hands very effectively to shed blockers and does a very good job breaking through "blocking walls" on kickoffs. Milligan is very effective leading the returner into the strength of the coverage team.

Milligan has shown great resolve this year by returning from his injury and will not doubt be given a strong look at safety next season. He is a fierce competitor who is intent on making his mark by playing hard, and has developed into one the team leaders on special teams. Against Cleveland Milligan was constantly in the mix and has continued to progress throughout the season. But the player that made the biggest impact this past Sunday was the newest addition to the team, Robb Butler.

Butler was an undrafted rookie this year who was given very few looks by various organizations. The Chargers gave him his shot and are now very happy they did so. Butler finished training camp by making the practice squad. Consequently, through his diligence he proved his worth and was called up to the active roster a couple of weeks ago. Butler is very up-beat and his positive attitude has set him apart from many other players trying to make the squad. Even during the preseason the scout team hopefuls would turn to Butler on the field for his leadership. Now only a few months later Butler has an opportunity to make the same type of contribution for a team headed to post-season.

Though the coverage against Cleveland was not the best to date it gave the Chargers a great opportunity to get a taste of a cold weather atmosphere in preparation for the playoffs. Butler was in on several special teams tackles, and even when he over-pursued he was able to steer the returner into the heart of the coverage team. Butler is a very gifted athlete who has the skills to make an impact for San Diego in the future. He has the size of a strong safety but the prowess of a cover corner. Butler is an excellent tackler, and as he gains experience, he will start becoming better at choosing angles and preventing himself from being blocked out of position. Butler plays every down as if it his last and will surely continue to rack up special team tackles as the season closes.

Diagnosis for season: If Osgood is given the starting slot at receiver once again Butler and Milligan will lead the charge in the coverage team. They will have the opportunity to prepare for the playoffs against some of the best kick returners over the next two weeks. The coverage team will be vital because of the dynamic offenses of the Colts and Chiefs. Special teams is one-third of football and it is safe to say the defense will have its work cut out for them as the season comes to a close. If the Chargers want to maintain their momentum they must not only match the opposing offenses score for score but win the special teams battle as well.

Diagnosis for the playoffs: If San Diego makes it out of the fist round they will inevitably play at least one game in cold weather. Aside from a thirty-eight yard return by Dennis Northcutt the coverage team played relatively well against Cleveland. But as everyone knows, one dynamic return can end the Chargers' season at this stage of the game. Every post-season match San Diego will be at a disadvantage in terms of offense or defense. The area they will have to make it up is in special teams. San Diego is depending on low round picks and undrafted free-agents to be the difference for them in the playoffs. But considering the way the season has gone would anyone want it any other way?

Byran Martin can be reached at

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