Special Teams Helping Titans Down the Stretch

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lorenzo Neal's handoff to Frank Wycheck, Wycheck's lateral to Kevin Dyson and the unobstructed 75 yards between Dyson and the end zone is a lasting sequence for both sides of the Tennessee-Buffalo series.

The "Music City Miracle" determined the most recent playoff game between two of the eight original American Football League franchises with just 16 seconds remaining in the Wild Card round of the 1999 playoffs.  The Titans (6-5) and Bills (5-6) have playoff aspirations again this season, but both teams need to win Sunday.

Kick returns can be game winners, momentum shifters, tone setters or changers of field position. They can provide points or yards, which tend to be tougher for offenses to gain as the season progresses and the weather gets colder.

The Titans have returned two kicks for touchdowns in three weeks and won both games in which they sprung free. Marc Mariani streaked 79 yards to the end zone after fielding an early punt at Carolina, and made a clean handoff on a reverse to Tommie Campbell, who sped the remaining 84 yards of a kickoff return against Tampa Bay.

Titans coach Mike Munchak said those plays have provided lifts, but it's also been helpful that Tennessee has prevented teams from returning a kick for a touchdown this season. The Titans have allowed 163 yards on punt returns, sixth least in the NFL, and allow 23.7 yards per kickoff return, which is tied for 15th.

"The whole package has been good," Munchak said. "The coverage unit; now, we've had a couple of points scored. (We have) a lot of things going in the right direction there, and that's a huge plus to have going into this part of the season."

Munchak said Titans special teams coach Alan Lowry, who was with Tennessee for the "Music City Miracle" and special teams assistant Chet Parlavecchio have been a good combination.

"He gets a lot of these guys on the sideline and does a lot of technique work with them where Alan hasn't had as much time in the past," Munchak said. "I think they work well together on game day with what they're seeing. These guys are responding well to them, especially in this last half of the season when you need to be solid on special teams."

Titans punter Brett Kern has punted 59 times. He's pinned opponents inside the 20-yard-line 16 times and forced them to fair catch the ball 16 times.

"They do a great job with the directional punting," Munchak said. "He's done a nice job with that—limiting returns and the coverage has really helped all that, too."

Kern, a native of Grand Island, N.Y., grew up a Bills fan and played high school football playoffs at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Sunday will be his first appearance at the stadium in a pro uniform.

"It's always good to go home," Kern said. "I've got some family coming, but obviously, it's a business trip, first and foremost, but it's also a plus when you can see some family as well."

Kern said the ball doesn't travel as far or as high when the weather gets colder, so technique, focus and punting where your coverage team expects the ball to go become even more important.

"If there's a little bit of wind, it kind of magnifies the situation," Kern said. "When it gets colder out, you're just trying to hit a great punt, (have good) placement, and minimize the return. It's definitely more important as the season goes on."

Kern has also continued to work with former Titans punter Craig Hentrich on a special technique that causes the ball to behave similar to a knuckleball in baseball and perplex punt returners.

"I've been close to getting my first guy to fumble it," Kern said. "I've had some good bounces and some bad bounces. Most importantly, I'm trying to set up field position to pin them deep, and the defense forces three-and-out."

Munchak said kicker Rob Bironas has done well on kickoffs and field goals this season, too. Bironas has recorded 28 touchbacks on 53 kickoffs and has fired accurately on 17 of 20 field goals, including a 52-yarder against Tampa Bay on a cold and rainy day at LP Field.

Munchak said Bironas has done a good job of communicating openly with him as the first-year head coach manages decisions during the game.

"He's been very honest with me as far as what distances he thought he could hit it with," Munchak said. "For me, that's huge because I really get a good feel."

STEWART IMPROVING: Munchak said tackle David Stewart (calf) is showing progress and will be listed as questionable for Sunday.

"We split his reps," Munchak said of Friday's practice. "He's a lot better than he was last week, so we're assuming he's going to be, unless he has some reaction from (Friday), we're feeling he's over the hump."

Mike Otto started in place of Stewart against the Buccaneers and will get the call again if Stewart can't return against the Bills.

RUUD OUT: Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (groin) will miss his second straight game, with rookie Colin McCarthy expected to make his third career start.

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