Last season, the Buccaneers promoted several players from special teams to starting jobs on offense and defense. This left Marciano with a young unit and little time to have them gel. But after a quarter of the season passed, Marciano saw his unit performing admirably.
Well, it's one year later and Marciano and his young troops appear to be back at square one. Special teams standout Dexter Jackson was promoted to the starting position at free safety in the offseason and the Buccaneers could not even start their talented young players on special teams because of injuries. Tampa Bay was forced to deactivate players like WR Frank Murphy in order to bring up C Leon Hires in place of Pro Bowl C Jeff Christy.
In Week 1 against Dallas, the special teams unit looked all but special. On K Martin Gramatica's first kickoff of the season, the special teams unit surrendered a 77-yard kickoff return to Reggie Swinton, which set up Dallas' first field goal.
On the following kickoff, Tampa Bay fell victim to trickery when Dallas on-side kicked the ball and the Bucs failed to recover.
Gramatica contributed to the special teams' lackluster performance by missing badly on a 52-yard field goal attempt. Throughout the game, Tampa Bay's special teams unit missed several tackles on punt and kick return coverage and committed too many penalties.
All of the Bucs mishaps on special teams gave Dallas an average starting field position at Tampa Bay's 49-yard line. After two weeks of football, the Bucs are ranked last in the NFC in opposing offense's starting field position. Now, one should take this with a grain of salt, seeing as the Buccaneers have only played one game. This is 14-yards behind the second-to-last ranked team, which just happens to be the Bucs opponent Sunday-the Minnesota Vikings.
Despite having several glaring problems on his unit, Marciano and Co. are confident they will pull their weight thanks to the three-week break and the return of two of the Bucs better special team players
"You hear people say the offense or defense hasn't gelled yet," said Bucs P Mark Royals. "Well, that happens with special teams sometimes, too. Guys who have not played together have to get used to playing where they are supposed to be, how to make plays and be a professional. You certainly hope those things happen sooner rather than later."
The Buccaneers recently added starting SLB Shelton Quarles to the special teams unit. Quarles, who earned a spot on the Bucs roster as a free agent in 1997 with his outstanding special teams play, recorded a club record 31 tackles in 1999 and is one of the Bucs all-time great special teams performers. After earning the starting position at strongside linebacker, Quarles has seen his special teams' role slowly diminish until now.
Marciano has made it clear that his unit cannot afford to not pull their weight. He will not hesitate to bring up more veterans if his unit does not become sound quickly.
"Joe told the veterans to be on alert," said head coach Tony Dungy. "Special teams is an area where we've got to get better. But I'm confident we will.''
The Buccaneers will also benefit from the return of rookie CB Dwight Smith, who was a special teams standout until he sprained his ankle in the preseason finale against Atlanta.
"That will help," said Bucs head coach Tony Dungy. "Dwight has been one of our better special teams players. He's a strong body and a real tough guy, and we do expect him to help us."
Perhaps one of the better performances on the special teams unit came from P Mark Royals, who is still not fully recovered from the MCL sprain he suffered back on the second day of training camp. Despite not being fully healed, Royals averaged 42.3 yards per punt on four punts against Dallas. He booted two of those punts inside the Cowboys' 20-yard line
"We did struggle at Dallas on special teams," said Royals. "On coverage and we let a kickoff get away, so we know we can do some better things there. But, who better to take care of those things than Joe Marciano? We know what we have to do and that's a big part of our success here. We can't afford to make mistakes, especially going to play a team like Minnesota. They're 0-2 and you got to figure whatever their best game is, we're going to see it Sunday."
Although Royals had a good outing in Week 1, he feels the extra time off has helped him heal even more.
"The time off has been great," said Royals. "I had Saturday, Sunday and Monday off and didn't do anything. It really helped out a lot."
Royals feels it will take time for him to get back to feeling 100 percent again. But he's confident he will feel that way sooner rather than later.
"I'm not quite there," said Royals. "But I'm moving in that direction and I feel better than I did last week."
With almost three weeks between games, Marciano has had a lot of time to work out the kinks in the special teams unit. The extra time has also allowed Royals to become healthier and Smith to return. Although the special teams are sometimes at times, one could not help but notice them in against Dallas. With at least 15 straight weeks of football to be played, the special teams unit will have to become something special and soon. But who better to make that happen than Joe Marciano?
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