In special game, units carrying special burden

The Baltimore Sun

MIAMI -- No one at this year's Super Bowl knows how much special teams can affect a game more than Russ Purnell.

As the Ravens' special teams coach for the January 2001 Super Bowl, Purnell watched the New York Giants' Ron Dixon return a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown to cut the Ravens' lead to 17-7 and provide hope of a comeback.

But the emotions swung right back to the Ravens on the ensuing kickoff when Jermaine Lewis answered with an 84-yard touchdown, racing down the right sideline with a finger raised.

"When Jermaine took that kickoff back, it didn't seal the deal, but all that momentum that had gone to the Giants' sideline just came right back over and more," said Purnell, who is in his fifth season as the Indianapolis Colts' special teams coach. "That was big, to say the least."

With the quarterback disparity at this Super Bowl, the best way for the Chicago Bears to upset the Colts might be through special teams, an area that has some Ravens connections.

In addition to Purnell, two Pro Bowl players for the Bears have ties with the Ravens. Kicker Robbie Gould spent 20 days on the Ravens' practice squad in 2005, and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo (whose older brother, Obafemi, won a Super Bowl with the Ravens) was sent to NFL Europe by the Ravens in 2001 before being cut days before training camp began.

But Purnell sees another connection when watching the Bears' dangerous returner, Devin Hester, on tape.

"He's got the size of Jermaine and has the acceleration and quickness Jermaine had," Purnell said. "But Hester might take more chances than Jermaine, who did what he was asked to do. This guy, because he is younger, relies more on athletic ability."

Hester's ability is the reason why the Bears' biggest edge is on special teams, where a Pro Bowl returner goes against Indianapolis' poor coverage teams.

Hester, a rookie out of the University of Miami, set an NFL single-season record with six touchdown returns - three punts, two kickoffs (in the same game) and a 108-yard return of a missed field goal, tying a record for the longest play in league history.

But there's been some increasing concern about his recent drops.

"We'll need a great game from Devin against Indianapolis," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said.

The Colts' biggest weakness this season has been giving up big returns. Indianapolis ranked in the NFL's bottom three in punt and kickoff coverage.

In the regular season, the Colts gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and allowed one score on a punt return. In total, Indianapolis gave up six kickoff returns of 40 yards or more.

This trouble spot surfaced in the AFC championship game in which New England's Ellis Hobbs returned a kickoff 80 yards.

There has been speculation that the Colts might use some defensive starters to try to contain Hester.

"I think it's a great idea," Hester said. "This is the last game of the season. It's the Super Bowl, the biggest game of the season, so it all boils down to you should have the best players on the field at all times. I hope they kick it to me. In the end, if they want to kick it out of bounds, then it could help out our offense, as well."

As much as Chicago gets a boost from its return game, its coverage teams have excelled, too.

The Bears should have an advantage over Colts returner Terrence Wilkins, who ranked 13th in the NFL in punt returns (9.2-yard average) and 15th in kickoff returns (24.5).

"We take pride on being the No. 1 special teams in the NFL," Ayanbadejo said. "We believe we are difference-makers."

The one area in which Indianapolis likely will have the edge is the kicking game.

The Colts' Adam Vinatieri is considered the best pressure kicker in the game after hitting two Super Bowl-winning field goals for New England.

Gould, who spent the 2005 training camp with Vinatieri in New England, doesn't have the same experience, but he was an All-Pro this season after making a team-record 32 of 36 field goals. His 49-yard field goal in overtime beat Seattle in the divisional round.

"[Vinatieri] loves the playoffs. He lives for the playoffs. That's one of the things I've taken from him," Gould said. "If there's a guy I want to be like, it's Adam Vinatieri. I want to be the guy they can count on for big kicks.

"But Adam has enough of them. It should be someone else's turn."

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