Gosselin: Bucs overhaul their special teams

Discussion in 'NFL Zone' started by LaTunaNostra, Jul 24, 2004.

  1. LaTunaNostra

    LaTunaNostra He Made the Difference

    14,987 Messages
    4 Likes Received
    Rick Gosselin: Bucs overhaul their special teams
    Tampa Bay gets best in the business to improve on '03 performance

    08:46 PM CDT on Saturday, July 24, 2004

    Rick Gosselin
    Inside The NFL

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reacted to an inept defense of their Super Bowl championship with a roster overhaul this off-season.

    After a stunning 7-9 collapse in 2003, coach Jon Gruden brought in 21 veterans to freshen up the Bucs in 2004. He added a host of past Pro Bowlers (Charlie Garner, Ian Gold and Brian Griese) and former first-round draft picks (Joey Galloway, Todd Steussie, Matt Stinchcomb, Tom Knight and Lamar King).

    Gruden also recruited a couple of seemingly low-profile backup linebackers who could have the biggest impact of all the newcomers on the 2004 Bucs.

    Tampa Bay ranked in the top 10 in offense and defense last season. But the 31st-ranked special teams in the NFL helped doom the Bucs to a losing season. Tampa Bay allowed a league-high six blocked kicks, and fumbled away another kick. It ranked 28th in the NFL in kickoff coverage, 29th in punt coverage.

    Throw in the NFL's worst kickoff return unit and Tampa Bay found itself losing the battle for field position on a weekly basis. Longer fields force your offense and defense to work harder – and the Bucs were gasping by Christmas.

    Enter Jeff Gooch and Keith Burns in 2004 to shorten those fields. Both are linebackers by trade but earn their keep when the starters are off the field: on kicking downs when the football is in the air. Both earned the label "special teams ace" in their careers for coverage skills.

    Gooch was Tampa Bay's ace from 1996-2001, collecting 126 tackles, forcing seven fumbles and recovering two others in the kicking game. He left for Detroit in free agency in 2002 and had his best season, posting 41 tackles to earn the Lions' special teams MVP honors.

    The Bucs tumbled from eighth in special teams with Gooch in 2001 to 31st two years later without him. So Gruden targeted Gooch, 29, in free agency for his "dynamic leadership and playmaking skills" in the kicking game.

    Burns, 32, was even more accomplished on special teams during his nine seasons with the Denver Broncos. He has amassed more tackles in the kicking game (182) than on defense (73) in his career.

    Burns led the Broncos in special-teams tackles in six of the nine seasons, including 2003, when he posted 24. He also has forced five fumbles, recovered four others and blocked a kick in his career.

    There was a 6-yard difference in punt coverage between Tampa Bay and Super Bowl champion New England in 2003 and a 2-yard difference in kickoff coverage. The Bucs had 98 kicks returned in 2003. Add them up, and the Bucs allowed 352 more return yards than the Patriots.

    That's too many "free" yards to give an offense, which compromised Tampa Bay's top-five defense. The Bucs allowed 68 more points in 2003 than they did on the way to the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history in 2002.

    Burns and Gooch were a superb start by the Bucs in addressing their problems in the kicking game. But Tampa Bay didn't stop there.

    The Bucs signed fullback Greg Comella in free agency and drafted linebacker Marquis Cooper (third round) and wide receiver Mark Jones (seventh round). All have extensive background covering kicks. Comella led the New York Giants in special-teams tackles in 1999.

    The Bucs addressed their woeful return game (32nd overall in kickoffs, 26th in punts) with Jones and NFL veterans Galloway and Brandon Bennett.

    Last year, Jones finished third in the NCAA in punt returns with an average of 15.7 yards at Tennessee. Galloway has returned four career punts for touchdowns, and Bennett averaged 23.2 yards per kickoff return over the last two seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Tampa Bay also has brought in a new punter (Josh Bidwell) and deep snapper (John Garrison) and hired an assistant special-teams coach (Ron Middleton) for Richard Bisaccia.

    Good special teams start with a commitment to the kicking game. Gruden made that commitment this off-season. If the Bucs have fixed their problems on special teams, that will go a long way toward fixing their problems as a football team.

    E-mail rgosselin@**************

    Printer Version

Share This Page