Rookie K Martin Gramatica is on the verge of several Buccaneer records
The Buccaneers' third-ranked defense usually gets the bulk of the attention in Tampa Bay, and the inspiring play of rookie QB Shaun King has been a well-covered story down the playoff stretch. That leaves third billing for the Bucs' special teams, a hardnosed mixture of starters and substitutes who form the kicking and kick-coverage units. On Sunday, however, in the Bucs' critical 29-10 win over Green Bay, the special teams were a big part of the team's victory.
Tampa Bay's special teams are asked to accomplish two basic tasks: score points off the leg of rookie K Martin Gramatica and win the field goal battle with the punt and kickoff units. Against Green Bay, both of those goals were solidly met.
Though Tampa Bay would eventually break out to a 19-point win, the early going was a battle of field goals, started by Gramatica's three first-half kicks that staked the Buccaneers to a 9-0 lead. Gramatica connected on shots of 49, 28 and 33 yards, upping his season mark to 25 successes in 29 tries. Not only does that tie the Tampa Bay standard for most successful field goals in a single season, originally set by Michael Husted in 36 tries in 1996, but it also puts Gramatica in position to walk away with another team record. Steve Christie nailed 23 of 27 tries in 1990 for a team-record 85.2% success rate; Gramatica's current mark, with one game to go, is 86.2%.
This, of course, is nothing new for the Bucs in 1999. Gramatica long ago earned the faith of his coaching staff, most notably when he hit on all four field goal tries against Atlanta in a 19-10 win on November 21, including a game-winning 53-yarder in the final minute. "Martin gives us a little bit of a comfort level," said Dungy after Sunday's win. "We know that when we get to the opponent's 30 or 35-yard line, we've got a really good chance to put some points on the board. The way we play, having an accurate kicker is an important part of our offensive game."
Gramatica's kicks and most of the Buccaneer scores on Sunday were set up by turnovers thanks to the Bucs' swarming defense. However, those turnovers occurred in the Packers' end of the field because Tampa Bay's punt and kickoff coverage squads repeatedly stifled Green Bay's return attempts. Overall, the Packers averaged just 16.9 yards per kickoff return and four yards per punt return. On two of WR Charles Jordan's three punt return attempts, he was stopped for no gain or a loss. He was originally stopped for a loss on the third try as well, but a penalty forced the Bucs to punt again. Jordan was also bottled up at the 10-yard line on a kickoff return of just one yard in the fourth quarter.
That type of punt and kickoff coverage led to an average drive start of the 27-yard line for the Packers, as opposed to the 41-yard line for Tampa Bay. Dungy saw this as a harbinger of good things for the postseason. "I thought our special teams had a terrific day. We kicked well, we covered well and we tackled real well on special teams. That's the kind of ball you need to be playing as you go into the playoffs."
While the coverage units were indeed excellent, they also were aided by the kicks of P Mark Royals, whose 41.4-yard gross average fails to indicate the unusual hang time he was able to generate against the Packers. Royals' hangers allowed his coverage squad to close the ground on Jordan, and the result was a stellar net average of 39.0 yards per punt and two kicks downed inside the 20. Royals' updated net average of 37.6 is within striking range of the team's single-season record, set at 37.8 by Tommy Barnhardt in 1996.
Royals, however, had other matters on his mind in the postgame locker room, after completing a 17-yard pass on a fake punt that technically counts as an offensive play. Royals pass resembled one of his punts in its exaggerated arc, but the result was a first down to S Damien Robinson that led to a Buccaneer field goal. "I don't know if it was touch or luck," said Royals. "When I was supposed to throw the ball, Damien wasn't out of his break, so I had to throw it high. It hung up there. But as you know, it's one of those plays where, if it works, you're a hero. And if it doesn't work, then you hear about it."
The Bucs also had a few outstanding returns, including a 13-yard punt runback by WR Karl Williams and a 34-yard kickoff return by RB Warrick Dunn that set the Bucs up at their own 47 near the end of the second half. However, neither return led to a Buccaneer score.
That didn't stop the Bucs' special teams from being a big part of the story on Sunday against the Packers. Whether they can steal some of the limelight again next week in the Windy City remains to be seen, although Gramatica should grab a few headlines. In addition to needing just one field goal to break the Bucs' record in that category, he needs just two points to become the first player in team history to reach triple digits in that category. As he stands now, the Bucs' rookie phenom is just one point shy of Donald Igwebuike's 1989 team record of 99 points. Obviously, the Buccaneers hope that Gramatica, and the rest of Tampa Bay's special teams, make their point in Chicago.