The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' trip to the Meadowlands on Sunday was Arrelious Benn's first football game in almost nine month, but the third-year receiver didn't finish the afternoon with any receptions.
Benn did have a big impact on the game, however.
In a move that came without any advance billing, the Buccaneers included rookie running back Michael Smith on their list of game day inactives and handed the kickoff return duties to Benn. In a game that featured 14 combined touchdowns and field goals, there was plenty of work for anyone lined up deep on kickoffs.
New York's Lawrence Tynes kicked off nine times in the game, and only one of them was deep enough in the end zone to force a touchback. RB D.J. Ware, Benn's personal blocker on the return team, fielded one of the other eight when it bounced very short in the game's final minute. The other seven were all taken out by Benn.
And those were his first seven NFL kickoff returns, though he handled the job while he was the University of Illinois. Known as a powerful, tackle-breaking runner with the Illini, Benn ran back 42 kickoffs for 996 yards and one touchdown during his three years with the team. He has long believed he could succeed in that role in the NFL, as well.
"I did it in college all three of my years at Illinois, and it was definitely something I've wanted to do," he said on Monday after finally getting that chance. "Any way to get my hands on the football."
Benn's day got progressively better. He was caught with an unexpected hit at the 19-yard line on his very first try, and the ball popped loose, though it was fortunately recovered by teammate Quincy Black. He got the next one out to the 19 and his third one to the 22. But it was at the start of the second half that Benn really found his legs. Hitting a seam just right of center on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, Benn suddenly jump-cut farther to the right and got around the edge of the cover team. He wasn't stopped until he reached the Giants' 47, at the end of a 55-yard return.
The Bucs' offense got just one first down from there, but that was enough, thanks to Benn's return, to set Connor Barth up for a 52-yard field goal that put the Bucs up by 14 points.
"I feel like I did good," said Benn. "My first one, the guy came and formed me up real good and I fumbled. But as the game went on I got better and better at it. I kept trying to hit the hole. I'm just going to get better, but it was good to be out there and get my body and my legs back in it. I'm getting back to my game speed."
It's likely that Benn will become gradually more involved in the Bucs' passing attack in the weeks to come. In the meantime, he can help the team out immediately on special teams, and that's fine with him. He says he has the kickoff return formula down pat.
"It's find the first hole, hit it, be physical and trust that my guys are going to block for me," said Benn.