Bradley Pinion swung his right leg with seemingly little effort and the opening kickoff of the game at Empower Field sailed high above the field, not bothering to land until it had completely cleared the field of play, including the end zone. Touchback, Broncos ball at the Denver 25.
There really was no reason to expect anything else. The full name of the Broncos stadium is Empower Field at Mile High, which is both historic and accurate. The higher altitude and thinner air in Denver gives strong-legged kickers like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' punter an extra boost. And Pinion is a touchback master even at sea level; in 2019 he set an NFL record with 88 kickoff touchbacks and ranked second in the NFL with a touchback percentage of 90.7%. It was easier to predict that Pinion would blast all of his kickoffs out of the end zone (he was six for six) than that Todd Bowles' creative blitzes would throw the Broncos' inexperienced quarterbacks off their game. (That happened, too.)
Pinion actually had seven touchbacks on the day because he hit one of his punts into the end zone for the first time in 2020. That's an undesired outcome, but it wasn't exactly a "blemish" on Pinion's day – that punt was blasted 58 yards and was nearly chased down at the one by Ryan Smith. It was still a 38-yard net with the ball coming out to the 20, which is acceptable. Overall, Pinion was a big part of what was an extremely good day for the Buccaneers' special teams in Denver.
The only real negatives were an extra point attempt that was blocked by Broncos linebacker Joseph Jones, who leapt completely over the blocking line at the snap, and a holding penalty that negated a good return by Jaydon Mickens.
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"You take that one play out on the extra point and I thought it was a major win for special teams," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Not only the blocked punt, but we had a punt [downed] inside [the 20] that set up a score. One bad penalty or we'd have run that punt after the safety all the way up to midfield. I think Mick did a good job with his punt returns – handling the ball – and I thought Bradley Pinion had a hell of a game with the touchbacks [and] the three punts inside the 20. We pinned them back there all day. I thought our special teams really, really won the battle."
In the Bucs' season-opening loss at New Orleans, the difference in field position between the two teams stood out sharply. The Buccaneers had an average drive start of their own 18-yard line; for the Saints, it was their own 42. Some of this was the result of turnovers but the Buccaneers' special teams also had a rough day. Things have been much better in the two games since as Tampa Bay has done much better in the kick-and-return game, following a solid performance against Carolina with a winning one in Denver. The Bucs had an average drive start of their own 37-yard line in both of those games, compared to the 26 for the Panthers and the 21 for Denver on Sunday.
The score to which Arians is referring to above was Shaq Barrett's safety on a third-quarter sack of Jeff Driskel in the end zone. Pinion had forced a fair catch by Diontae Spencer at the eight-yard line and a penalty had put Denver into a third-and-five hole. The double-whammy of getting nailed with a safety is that your opponent not only scores two points but you have to then kick the ball back to them. This kick takes place from the kicking team's 20-yard line and can be either booted off a tee or hit like a punt. Teams usually choose the latter option to get more hang time, but it is still a great opportunity for the return team to get good field position.
That's what happened when Mickens fielded Sam Martin's free-kick punt at the Bucs' 18 and got 27 yards back to the 45. Unfortunately, a penalty on Andrew Adams brought it all the way back to the 25, but Pinion still flipped the field position with another punt fair caught by Spencer inside the 20 at the end of a short Bucs' possession.
Jones' acrobatic block of Ryan Succop's third extra point attempt of the first half marks the first unsuccessful PAT in 10 tries for Succop as the Bucs' kicker. He has also made four of his five field goal tries so far, and again the only miss was actually a block on a 54-yard attempt in New Orleans. When opposing hands haven't gotten in the way, Succop has rather dependably directed the ball between the uprights.
Succop made both of his tries in Denver to help the Bucs pull away from the Broncos, hitting from 43 and 35 yards. The former kick is his only one so far from 40 or more yards away. Extra points are the equivalent of 33-yard field goals, so Succop so far is 11 for 11 on kicks from inside 40 yards, discounting Sunday's blocked attempt. That may not sound like the most exciting way to describe a kicker's performance, but it was exactly this dependability on the 'gimme' kicks that Arians coveted heading into 2020. The Buccaneers weren't sure Matt Gay was going to provide that and brought in Succop at the very end of training camp to compete. Succop's track record on gimmes likely swayed the decision; he once made an NFL-record 56 straight field goal attempts from inside 50 yards while with the Titans.
"That was always his forte," said Arians. "He had that long streak. We expect it from him every time. Again, he's getting more pop in his leg the more his practices and the more he works out. We're really excited about knowing that we have three points."
The single biggest play for the Buccaneers on special teams Sunday, however, came just four minutes into the game, on a play when the other team was kicking. After stalling on the game's opening possession, the Broncos sent Sam Martin out to punt it away but 270-pound defensive lineman Patrick O'Connor bulled his way right through the middle of Denver's blockers and got a hand up to block the kick right after it left Martin's foot. O'Connor gave chase as the ball rolled in the opposite direction of its original intention and was able to carry it a few yards down to the Denver 10. Chris Godwin scored three plays later.
"Great job by Pat O'Connor blocking that punt [and] getting us started," said Arians. "Heck of a job by Chris [Godwin] getting it in the end zone [and] turning that into a touchdown.
Arians awarded O'Connor a game ball after the victory was complete, and if this was the Oscars O'Connor probably would have accepted on behalf of the entire special teams crew. The Bucs' special-teamers put in a winning effort and helped keep Denver from getting back into the game. They all deserve a game ball.