NEW ORLEANS (AP) -From the day Reggie Bush joined the New Orleans Saints as a rookie, the flashy, versatile and blazing running back never stopped lobbying to return punts, no matter how big his workload became on offense.
``It's tough to run back punt returns, especially in this league, and to run back kickoff returns, (but) if you have somebody who's really good at it and who's really elusive, it just gives them another chance to make a play,'' Bush said. ``It gives you a chance to get the ball in space and, obviously, when you have a playmaker in that type of situation, you always like your chances.''
With all the fair catches on punts and touchbacks on kickoffs, special teams plays seem anticlimactic at times. But certainly not in Week 2 in this young NFL season, when Bush returned a punt 55 yards for a score; San Diego's Darren Sproles ran back a kickoff 103 yards; and two other punts were blocked and recovered for touchdowns, by Chicago and Tennessee.
ow spectacular special teams could be for those who excel at them, and how troubling it could be for those who don't. NFL coaches nearly always have placed heavy emphasis on a phase of the game that isn't always recognized by the fans - except when something, well, special happens.
Teams are more inclined these days to ask both offensive and defensive starters to help out on special teams. At the same time, they use draft picks on and hold precious roster spots for specialists such as long snappers who may never otherwise get in the game.
``We have to take the approach in our return game as an opportunity to change field position and create an advantage with a guy like Reggie Bush,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said. ``It just seems as if this year, some of the young players that have come out have done a good a job on special teams. When you look at Felix Jones for Dallas or the receiver from Cal (DeSean Jackson) with Philadelphia, or you look at (Eddie) Royal, who's helping Denver, there are a lot of talented young returners right now that are making an impact, and it forces you to play well on special teams or else you could really end up being on the bad end of a play.''
Cleveland coach Romeo Crennel began his NFL career as a special teams coach. When the Browns won 10 games last season, much of the credit went to their ability to cover and return punts and kickoffs.
tier in the NFL,'' Cleveland kicker Phil Dawson said. ``Coaches know you just can't go out there and dominate with your offense or defense anymore. You have to win two of three phases in a game, which is why they've put such a premium on special teams play. Look around the league and you'll see there are plenty of teams using starters on special teams.''
The Browns' Joshua Cribbs made the Pro Bowl as a return specialist after taking back two kickoffs for TDs and one punt for a TD. Dawson has been one of league's steadiest kickers for years. Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand also made the Pro Bowl last year. When Butch Davis drafted him in the fifth round in 2003, people laughed. Not anymore.
Browns punter Dave Zastudil had five punts for 265 yards for a 53-yard gross average and 52.8-yard net average in last Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh, both career bests. It was an extraordinary performance when factoring in 60 mph wind gusts stemming from the remnants of Hurricane Ike. Although the Steelers won 10-6, special teams play was what kept Cleveland close throughout.
``Because the talent is so even, you're trying to find the edge,'' Pontbriand said. ``A lot of times you can win the game with special teams ... so that's why there's so much more of an emphasis now.''
ntrich's 70-yard boot with the wind at his back went out of bounds at the Bengals 2-yard line. Unable to move the ball, Cincinnati had to punt from the 1. Tennessee left its defense on the field and starting linebacker Keith Bulluck blocked Kyle Larson's kick in the end zone, then picked up the ball for the TD.
Back in suburban New Orleans, Saints long snapper Kevin Houser didn't seem at all surprised as he reflected on last weekend's rash of big special teams plays.
``One guy on a punt return will get a little complacent and start thinking about coverage, as opposed to protection, and that's when you see the blocked punts,'' Houser said. ``Then you've got great players around the league like Reggie and (Chicago's) Devin Hester and it can be lights out within two or three steps. A lot of times it takes one or two blocks or one man to miss an assignment and it's over.''
Talk about making a career in special teams. Houser, who jokingly refers to himself as an upside-down quarterback, has done little else but deliver long snaps on punts and place kicks since he was selected by New Orleans out of Ohio State in the seventh round of the 2000 draft.
He has played in 130 consecutive games for the Saints, so coaches clearly recognize the importance of such a player. Fans may be a little slower to catch on.
only when they mess up, Houser said.
``Doing your job, day in and day out, you don't really get recognized and in fact, it's great, because so far I can walk around the grocery store and I don't really get recognized,'' he said. ``So the less people know me, the happier I am, the happier my wife is.''
Yet, the way specials teams are figuring into the outcomes of games, it may not be long before a reliable long-snapper like Houser becomes a household name.
AP sports writers Tom Withers in Cleveland, Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Bernie Wilson in San Diego and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this report.

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