Can Philadelphia's defense stop Tampa Bay's offense?
These two questions have been the topic of conversation amongst both the local and national media this week. Heck, those two questions are even a hot topic between the players.
While both teams' offensive and defensive units will obviously play big roles in terms of determining Sunday's outcome, there's one area that has been somewhat overlooked.
It's a good thing the Buccaneers realize how big a part special teams will play in determining the outcome of the NFC Championship Game. Then again, how could they not? After all, the Bucs special teams coverage units allowed Eagles kick and punt return specialist Brian Mitchell to produce 144 combined return yards back in Week 7 when the Eagles downed the Bucs, 20-10.
Mitchell returned five punts against the Bucs for 61 yards (12.2 avg.) back in Week 7. One of those punt returns went for 29 yards. He also returned three kickoffs for a total of 83 yards (27.6 avg.), including a 47-yarder.
But the Bucs can't hang their heads too low because of its woeful outing against Mitchell and Co. earlier in the season. Mithcell is, after all, regarded as one of the best return specialists to ever play in the NFL. He's the league's all-time leader in both kickoff (23.4 avg.) and punt (11.2 avg.) return average. Mitchell is no stranger to the end zone either. He's returned four kickoffs and nine punts for touchdowns during his 12-year career.
"They have a Hall-of-Fame return man in Brian Mitchell back there who has broken all the return records," said Bucs cornerback and gunner Corey Ivy. "We just have to go out and contain him, not let him break any big ones and be sure to wrap him up when we have a chance to tackle him.
"He's the best in the business right now. We just have to go out there and wrap him up when the opportunity presents itself, swarm the ball and make the plays prevent him from breaking the long run."
Mitchell averaged 27 yards per kickoff return and 12.3 yards per punt return during the regular season and he reached the end zone on one punt return.
Mitchell is a running back at heart, which is why he's so good as a return specialist. Mitchell's tackle-breaking ability, his 5-foot-10, 221-pound frame and his impressive field vision make him tough to contain.
Of course, the best way to limit Mitchell's return yards is to not allow him to field the ball.
"It's just his will," Bucs CB and gunner Dwight Smith said of what makes Mitchell so good. "He loves to win and he loves to defeat and any chance he has to make a play he's going to do it. We can't let him get the ball and go straight up the field. We have to make the ball bounce outside some way."
Although Bucs punter Tom Tupa averaged 43.8 yards per punt and pinned 30 of his punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line during the regular season, he's had his fair share of short punts, too. That's something he can't afford to do on Sunday.
"He's a great returner, but we have a great coverage unit," said Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica. "Our guys, if I get decent kickoffs and (punter) Tom (Tupa) gets good enough punts, we'll tackle him. Tom and I need to do our jobs and kick the ball good."
While Mitchell made some great plays against Tampa Bay in Week 7, the Bucs said they made some critical mistakes in that contest which allowed Mitchell to have big returns.
"I think it was some mistakes we had – running out of lanes and not forcing him to bounce the ball," Smith said. "We were just letting him get it and go upfield, what he loves to do. If you're going to give Brian Mitchell a chance to just catch it and go upfield, he's going to get 12 or 15 yards every punt return. Those 12 or 15 yards you can't give up in a game like this."
Tampa Bay's special teams coverage units are anxious to take the field Sunday and make up for some of the mistakes they made in the first contest.
"As a total special teams unit, we're tired of hearing about Brian Mitchell and how he's so elusive and how he's so going to break long runs," said Ivy. "We're just going to go out there and do our job and wrap him up."
In a game that will feature the No. 1 and No. 4 ranked defenses in the NFL, field position could make or break both teams' offenses on Sunday.
If they can contain Mitchell, Tampa Bay will stand a good chance of downing Philadelphia and advancing to Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego, California.
But that's a big if.
"I think it comes down to special teams this game because these defenses are so tough and there are going to be not so many points scored," Smith said. "Field position is going to be a big part of this game and Brian Mitchell is their big key on special teams. If we can stop him, we'll have a good chance."
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