Bucs kickoff team keeps it covered

Special teams used to be football's version of the "Tools of Ignorance." Not anymore. In Tampa Bay, special teams takes on special importance, and right now the kickoff coverage unit is the league's best. How do they do it? Find out in this exclusive premium article.

It appears to be chaos. Ten men hurtling themselves down a football field in pursuit of a fleet-footed kick returner. There appears to be no order to these few plays, plays that many coaches say can decide the winner of a football game.

But look a little closer and you'll see order to this chaotic scene. A kickoff going in a certain direction. Players maintaining their lane down a portion of the field, even if the ball is on the other side. One tackler making contact, and then another, and another, and another, until the ball carrier is brought down.

One of football's most exciting plays is a kickoff return for a touchdown, but there's a reason it rarely happens. It comes down to those 10 men covering that kickoff — and, occasionally, a kicker forced to make a desperate tackle.

And, right now, no kickoff coverage unit is better than Tampa Bay's.

Through three games the Buccaneers have allowed an average field position of the 20.7-yard line on kickoffs, the statistics the NFL uses to measure kickoff coverage. Tampa Bay's kickoff unit has forced opponents to start inside their 20-yard line five times, plus Matt Bryant's kicks have found the end zone three more times. That means that Tampa Bay's opponents have started drives off kickoffs at their own 20 or worse eight of 13 times so far this season.

Now consider that the Bucs are No. 5 in scoring defense, and that teams are only averaging about 12.5 points per game.

Coincidence? Not really. It's much harder to navigate 80 yards or more for a touchdown, as opposed to 50. Ask St. Louis. The Rams were never able to overcome that hurdle.

Tampa Bay announced itself as a special teams force on Sunday when it limited St. Louis' Dante Hall — one of the league's most feared returners — to just 15.7 yards per kickoff return, well below his 24.0-yard career average.

"I don't know if we've ever yielded only 12.5 yards per return," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said on Monday. "That's Dante Hall back there. We got down the field, we covered extremely well, as well as we've ever covered in a game yesterday."

Tampa Bay had a solid unit last year, ranked 11th in the NFL with an average field position of the 26.4-yard line. But this year's unit is producing results that are making a difference as the 2-1 Buccaneers enter Sunday's game with Carolina.

"It's a good momentum builder for the defense when they first go out," safety Kalvin Pearson, a member of that unit, said. "The defense is in good position to start the game and that's gotten the ball rolling so far. That's the first play of the game and covering well sets the tone."

How do the Bucs do it? Follow along.

The personnel

Special teams used to be reserved for rookies or third-string backups, and to a degree special teams is still their domain. But as games are now as likely to swing on a big return as they are on a long pass or interception, more thought has been put into who mans these units.

Rookies still make up a good portion of these units. Linebackers Adam Hayward and Quincy Black have already made an impact. Each has two special teams tackles in three games. Safety Tanard Jackson, who starts, has three tackles.

Younger players always talk about catching up to the speed of the NFL. Hayward believes playing special teams early in one's career can help.

"I think so," Hayward said. "It would be hard to come in and be expected to be that (a great player). So you have to come in and work your way through it and special teams is a great way to do that."

For rookies, there is a learning curve. Hayward had a taste of that in the season opener against Seattle. On a punt return, Hayward had what appeared to be a pretty clear shot at returner Nate Burleson. But Hayward overran Burleson, who broke it for a big return and set up a subsequent Seattle score.

Special teams players must be fast, but they must also learn how to play under control. It can be an overwhelming experience, even for an experienced player, Bucs special teams coach Richard Bisaccia said.

"There are so many things going on," Bisaccia said. "So when a guy is hauling butt down the field 40 yards and his head is bobbing up and down, his head is on a swivel. We try to teach them where they're (the blockers) are coming from and where to put their eyes so they can see what's going on."

Veterans — even well-heeled ones —play special teams. Barber continues to put in occasional time in kick coverage, as does safety Jermaine Phillips. Wide receiver Maurice Stovall, a second-year pro, and Michael Clayton, also played on kickoff coverage. Defensive end Kevin Carter blocks on punts.

Why? The theory goes that you put your best players on special teams and let them make plays. Barber pulled plenty of special teams duty before he became a starter and is still talented enough to make plays.

To wit, the leading tacklers on special teams after three games are a former starting linebacker — Ryan Nece — and the starting fullback ¬— B.J. Askew.

The third group are players that make their living on special teams. The NFL didn't have dedicated special teams players until after the play of Dallas' Bill Bates and Buffalo's Steve Tasker, among others, forced teams to do so.

Now every team has two or three guys who are clearly on the roster for the sake of special teams coverage. In Tampa Bay those players are Kalvin Pearson, Torrie Cox (currently suspended) and Earnest Graham.

None of them have been good enough to start on a regular basis at their positions, but they've played above board when it comes to special teams.

Pearson is a perfect example. The third-year pro is a safety, but he rarely plays there. He's considered one of the leaders on special teams, so the No. 1 ranking, for him, is a source of price, no less important that Carnell Williams' three touchdown runs so far this season.

He plays mostly inside on kickoff coverage because that's where he's comfortable. Cox, meanwhile, will likely take one of the outside spots because his speed makes him more comfortable in space. Knowledge of personnel is key to making the coverage unit work.

"Different players have different knacks," Pearson said. "He'll (Bisaccia) adjust sometimes on where you're comfortable."

And it can be harder for a guy like Pearson, who has three tackles so far this season, because his reputation is built on about 10-15 plays per game.

"I don't know if Kalvin Pearson has a tackle yet, but there are four or five guys trying to block him based on what he's done in the past," Bisaccia said.

The kicker

Some kickers, to use a golf term, "grip it and rip it." In other words, they just kick it down the field without much thought to location.

Bryant is a directional kicker. He has the ability to kick the ball to a location on the field, giving the Buccaneers an advantage in kickoff coverage.

To Bisaccia, it's no less important than the speed or tackling of the other 10 players on the unit.

"Him kicking the ball well is a big factor in our ability to cover," Bisaccia said.

How? Well, Bryant explains it better.

"If I put it to a certain spot, as they run down the field they can see how the guys are running to line up to block," Bryant said. "So they already have in mind, on the go, this is what I need to do to beat this guy in front of me."

Three of Bryant's kickoffs on Sunday put Hall on the outside hashmark on the Rams' side of the field. That was by design. By kicking to one side of the field, Pearson said, opposing blockers have to commit earlier than they want to set up blocking.

"The speed makes it difficult for them to cover us all the way across the field," Pearson said.

Bryant's ability to kick it anywhere on the field also keeps opposing return units off-balance. And there's comfort, Pearson said, in knowing where the ball is going.

"If he (Bryant) says it's going left, it's going left," Pearson said.

The strategy

Yes, there is strategy in covering a kickoff, though Bisaccia is loathe to get into specifics. Trade secrets, you know.

What he would cop to is that each special teams coach goes into a game with a plan, just as the offense and the defense does.

"We go into the game with a lot of calls, sometimes with very few," Bisaccia said. "It depends on the scheme. There are so many different things that people try to do to you, whether it's four-man wedge teams or three-man wedge teams or traps and double-team kickouts. There are so many things going on."

For the players in coverage, lane integrity is key. The term is used a lot in defense, only it's called "gap integrity." Lane integrity is much the same animal.

Each player on the field is assigned a lane, and they must maintain that lane as long as possible to prevent a returner from cutting back and finding a lane toward the end zone.

"You don't want to create a seam for the returner," Hayward said. "That's what they want. They get paid to find that little seam when someone messes up and then they're gone. We're strict about that."

After the scheme and the lane integrity, it really boils down to tackling, Bisaccia said.

"Anytime we have problems it's because of a mistackle," Bisaccia said.

Tampa Bay, thus far, has done a fine job of tackling. Last weekend against St. Louis Askew cut off Hall at the legs to stop the returner at the Rams 19. Later in the game, the Bucs gang-tackled Hall at the 18, led by defensive tackle Greg Peterson.

At a certain point, Hayward said, it's a matter of beating the man in front of you any way you can.

"You get down there and you either beat your guy or run through your guy," Hayward said.

Bisaccia can enjoy his unit's ranking only so much, he said. It takes just one return to make a great special teams unit look like a bunch of dopes.

"I learned a long time ago — yesterday's newspapers, today's toilet papers," Bisaccia said.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.

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