If Saturday night's game against Cleveland was any indication, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't have to worry about their kicking game. That's good, because there are plenty of other issues to resolve in the next week as the roster is trimmed from 90 to 53 players.
Special teams were the Buccaneers' most consistent phase of the game in the 13-9 loss to Cleveland, with Head Coach Dirk Koetter really only finding fault with one play. That was a holding penalty in the third quarter that erased Bernard Reedy's 22-yard punt return and moved the offense's starting point from its 43 back to the 12. Otherwise, the Buccaneers kicked, punted, tackled and returned with great success throughout a rainy evening.
Obviously, a good night for placekicker Nick Folk was the most encouraging part of the evening, as the Buccaneers are hoping to get much better results in that area in 2017 than they did a year ago. Folk, an 11th-year veteran with nearly 300 career field goal tries, inherited the job when the Buccaneers released young kicker Roberto Aguayo two weeks ago. Tampa Bay did subsequently sign a second kicker in Zach Hocker, but Folk's performance on Saturday night is exactly what the team is looking for.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Buccaneers' preseason matchup with the Browns.
Folk made all three of his field goal attempts, with a wet track adding to the level of difficulty. His last two kicks were from 42 and 43 yards; that's certainly will within the expected range of any NFL kicker, but the Buccaneers had to settle for four field goals in 11 tries from 40 and beyond last year.
"You expect him to make it," said Koetter. "That's what NFL kickers do and Nick did it. That's what he's supposed to do. We talk to guys about it all the time – make the plays that you're supposed to make. When you do that, our team will be fine most of the time. Nick did a good job last night. He's been solid this whole preseason – maybe minus one or two days – and I would say that is par for most players."
Those isolated struggles for Folk came mostly early in training camp. After Saturday's game, he suggested that he is peaking at just the right time, and that was essentially his plan all along. That appears to be the case, not only as evidenced in the game but also in the previous week of practice, in which he has been very sharp. Overall, Folk has made six of his seven field goal tries in the preseason, and while that's an isolated sample size that 85.7% success rate would put him a bit above last year's NFL average of 84.2%. Folk will obviously aim for an even higher percentage, but just getting above the league norm would represent a big improvement for the team.
The Buccaneers don't necessarily need improvement in their punting game, though every little bit helps. Bryan Anger was so good in his first season with the team that the Bucs re-signed him just before the 2016 regular season came to an end. Anger finished 12th in the NFL in gross average (45.9), fourth in net average (42.7, a new franchise single-season record) and tied for third in punts inside the 20 (37, also a Buc record by a wide margin).
Anger is a master at trapping opponents near their own goal lines, but even by his standards he had a remarkable game on Saturday night. Every single one of his seven punts forced the Browns to start inside their 20, the first one downed at the Cleveland one-yard line by rookie safety Justin Evans.
No one bothers to compile preseason NFL records (presumably), but seven inside-the-20 punts in one game is a rare performance in the regular season. That stat has been tracked since 1976, and in 41 seasons there have been only seven games in which a punter dropped that many kicks inside the 20. The record is only one more, with Bryan Barker and Mark Royals (when he was a Steeler, not a Buc) each compiling eight in a game once. Anger's own career high in the regular season is six.
"Part of winning is field position," said Koetter. "It's one of the biggest things; it's not talked about very much. [I] had it in my mind that we were going to go for that one fourth down around the 40-something-yard line. I changed my mind after I saw what defense they were in, went to the punt and he pins them down at the one-yard line. Bryan is such a weapon. Our gunners continue to do a good job. That was Justin Evans on that one, that was a nice play by him.
"I think our kicking game is in good hands going into the season."
Evans, a second-round pick who is likely a long-term answer for the Bucs at safety, got snaps at the gunner position against Cleveland in part because Josh Robinson was out with an injury and Ryan Smith was getting a lot of snaps at cornerback. Robinson and Smith were an excellent coverage duo for the Buccaneers last year, but Evans could factor into that role as well in his rookie season.
"Well, he'll be out there on that punt team," said Koetter of Evans. "He can play multiple positions on it. He had to move out – he played 'PP' [personal protector] some of the earlier times in the preseason. We needed him at gunner last night because we had a couple injuries at gunner, but he can play multiple spots."
As for the return game, Reedy continues to shine as he tries to win a spot at the back end of the Bucs' receiving corps. The Bucs have given him most of the punt return opportunities this preseason and he has taken advantage. Even with that 22-yarder nullified on Saturday night, Reedy has averaged 9.5 yards on six punt returns, as well as 23.5 yards on two kickoff returns. The Buccaneers have gotten better results than their opponents in both of those areas, with an 8.1-yard average on punt returns and a 25.6-yard average on kickoff returns. Tampa Bay's cover teams have allowed averages of 6.0 and 18.0, respectively. Evans has shown value in that regard, as well, as he leads the team with two special teams tackles.
The upcoming round of roster cuts will help define who makes up the core of the Bucs' special teams in 2017, though Evans seems like a sure bet to be involved. Fortunately, the team doesn't have to worry about its kicking duo when it's time to make those maneuvers. Folk and Anger appear to have it in hand…or, should we say, feet?