Jumbo linemen Marcus Jones and Warren Sapp have played a big part in the Bucs' kick-blocking frenzy
From 1976 to 1986, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 11 years before blocking an opponent's punt.
These days, three games constitutes a long drought. Throw in opponent field goal tries, and the Bucs are averaging two blocked kicks for every three games in 2000.
If that seems like a lot to you, it is. Prior to this year, the Buccaneers had never blocked more than four combined punts and field goals in a season; they have six through just nine games in 2000. The previous team record was first established in 1990, when Tampa Bay blocked four field goals (including, amazingly, one by tackle Paul Gruber). The Bucs also had four blocks under Head Coach Tony Dungy in 1997, when they got to two field goals and two punts. If you want to include extra points, then the old team record was five, set in 1978 with two on field goals and three on PATs.
But six in nine games? The 1996 Buffalo Bills were the last NFL team to even get six in a season. The last team to get seven, a number the Buccaneers seemed destined to match, was the Kansas City Chiefs in 1990, led by punt-blocker extraordinaire Albert Lewis. The Chiefs were known around the league for their special teams prowess in the late '80s and early '90s, but Dungy believes it's actually tougher to put up those kinds of numbers in 2000.
"It's been harder to harder to block kicks in the NFL in the last four or five years," said Dungy. "The snappers are better – everybody's keeping a guy just to do that. The rhythm is good. Usually, they're tough to get, but we've had some guys that have taken advantage of little situations that we've been able to set up. It's kind of like turnovers – when you start to get them, then everybody feels like they can get the next one and they go a little bit harder and it seems to rub off."
Blocked kicks are also like turnovers in that they are often golden scoring opportunities. Tampa Bay leads the NFL in points scored off takeaways, with 83, but it should be noted that blocked punts and field goals do not fall into that category. The 22 points that the Bucs have netted off of their six blocks (two TDs, two field goals, one safety) are an added bonus and part of the reason that Tampa Bay is on pace to obliterate it's team scoring record.
"The last two weeks, we've taken advantage of the opportunities, whereas in our losing streak, we didn't," said Dungy of the Bucs' 68 combined points against Minnesota and Atlanta. "We're still making some errors, we're not as sharp on a lot of things as we'd like to be. But when we've gotten the chances the last two weeks, we've taken advantage of them, and that's what you have to do."
In Lewis' heyday with the Chiefs, he blocked kicks with speed and a quick burst off the line, often coming around the corner or stunting inside at the snap to find an unblocked gap. The 2000 Buccaneers are also looking for gaps to shoot, but are doing it as much with mass as speed. The five players who have blocked kicks for Tampa Bay this season include three defensive linemen (Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones and John McLaughlin) and two linebackers (Alshermond Singleton and Nate Webster). Those five players have an average weight of 256.2 pounds.
They're also doing it with brainpower, thanks to the gray matter of Special Teams Coach Joe Marciano. After a slow start in which the problems were primary on kickoff and punt coverage, the Bucs' special teams units have rebounded to become a clear strength for Tampa Bay. A perfectly-executed fake punt, a 51-yard field goal, blanket coverage on dangerous Falcon return man Tim Dwight and, especially, McLaughlin's second-quarter punt block were huge elements in the Bucs' 27-14 win over Atlanta.
"Joe has done a good job. We kind of talked earlier in the year about our special teams not firing on all cylinders. We had guys that really had to learn our system, young guys coming in, and they've gotten better and better. This was a big challenge this week, because Tim Dwight was a guy that we had to stop. I thought we handled the field position real well, punting and kicking off. But Joe is really an intense guy. He studies his craft and works on it. He's able to get it across to the players, and that's what it takes on special teams. They've been as important as anybody the last two weeks."
Marciano surely has a few more tricks up his sleeve for the last seven games, though he would probably object to that choice of words. One of the most respected special teams coaches in the NFL, Marciano drills his units hard during practice and believes more in attention to detail than sleight-of-hand. Whatever the method used to achieve results, the Bucs hope to continue them, because there's nothing like a blocked kick to turn a game around in a hurry.