The Bucs have swarmed to the ball on kickoff coverage this year, which will be a necessity against Dante Hall
If the Kansas City Chiefs are at all concerned at Dante Hall's uncharacteristically pedestrian kickoff return numbers, Jon Gruden has a suggestion.
"I think they should bench him and not play him," said Gruden.
Of course, we all know that Gruden is looking out for number one with that bit of advice. His Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the next team to face Hall, last year's AFC Pro Bowl kick return man, when the Chiefs come to town on Sunday.
Hall, who had kick returns for touchdowns in four consecutive games last season (two on punts, two on kickoffs), is averaging just 20.3 yards per kickoff return so far this year, well behind the NFL's leader, the Bucs' Torrie Cox (28.9). Hall is averaging an impressive 14.9 yards per punt return, but he hasn't found the end zone with either variety of runback yet.
That last note would not be even remotely remarkable for most return men, but Hall operates under a different set of expectations after last year's breakout season. Gruden knows those expectations may sometimes be unreal; on the other hand, he too knows that Hall is a threat to break one on any given Sunday.
"I think what he did a year or so ago is unprecedented," said Gruden. "I think people expect that now; you know how people are these days. They see the flash, they see the dash and they want to see it all the time. He still is magnificent. Man, is he good."
If the Bucs don't necessarily take any comfort in Hall's kickoff return average so far, they can get encouragement from their own work covering kicks this season. Statistically, the Bucs rank higher against punt returns (5th) than kickoff returns (17th), but they are noticeably improved over a season ago and they had a stellar day against another very dangerous return man a month ago, the Saints' Michael Lewis.
Opponents are averaging 21.5 yards per kickoff return and an average kickoff drive start of their own 27.4-yard line against Tampa Bay's coverage unit. The Bucs would be pleased to duplicate those numbers against Kansas City, whose offense doesn't need any help getting to the end zone.
"They can do a really good job in the return game," said Gruden. "They've set the offense up with some real good opportunities to score because of their return game, and they've scored themselves [on returns] in recent years. It's a big edge in this game, special teams, as it always is."
The Chiefs have potentially the biggest special teams edge in the game in Hall, no matter what the numbers say. In fact, his lower average and total of just nine punt returns are in part the product of teams trying hard not to let Hall burn them.
"I think people realize how special he is and try to limit the amount of opportunities that he gets," said Gruden. "[Opponents] really rev up their coverage teams every week, because he can make some wild plays, that's for sure."
Other than fullback Mike Alstott (knee, out approximately four weeks), everybody on the Bucs' roster practiced to some extent on Thursday. Still, Tampa Bay's injury report grew by one player.
S Dwight Smith was added to the report after practice due to a knee injury. He is listed as probable, however, which means it is likely he'll be able to play on Sunday against Kansas City.
The rest of the Bucs' report stayed the same, meaning the team still has half of its receiving corps listed as questionable heading into the weekend. That's the shared designation for Joe Jurevicius, Charles Lee and Joey Galloway, though all three participated in practice.
The Chiefs' injury report, which is a bit longer than Tampa Bay's, stayed the same on Thursday, with tight end Kris Wilson (ankle) still designated as 'out' and linebacker Monty Beisel (calf) considered 'doubtful.' The Chiefs also have four players listed under the questionable heading: running back Derrick Blaylock (thigh), fullback Omar Easy (hamstring), cornerback Dexter McCleon (hamstring) and defensive tackle Junior Siavii (ankle).
Of those players, five didn't practice on Thursday: Wilson, Beisel, Easy, McCleon and Siavii. Beisel and McCleon are starters when healthy, the former at middle linebacker and the latter at right cornerback.
Beisel's replacement in last week's game was second-year player Kawika Mitchell, a product of the University of South Florida. A second-round draft pick in 2003, Mitchell started the last six games of his rookie season and recorded 25 tackles and an interception.
"He's a young player who fits their system," said Gruden. "They've had a couple of injuries at linebacker, Beisel's been out of there, and he's stepped up and showcased why he's in the NFL and why he was a fairly high pick. He's a good kid. We liked him, too."
Gruden's last season as head coach in Oakland (2001) was also Dick Vermeil's first year at the Chiefs' helm. Gruden's Raiders defeated Vermeil's crew twice that season, the only two times the two coaches have patrolled opposing sidelines.
Gruden is one of many people in the game who have been positively affected by Vermeil's presence, during and in-between the long-time coach's stints in Philadelphia (1976-82), St. Louis (1997-99) and Kansas City (2001-present).
"I've got a lot of respect for him," said Gruden. "He helped me out a lot when I was getting started in Philadelphia, when he was no longer coaching at that time. I'm a big fan of his and I also enjoy competing with him because I consider him one of the best."
Vermeil is known for being easier to bring to tears than most coaches, but that in no way indicates a lack of toughness. In fact, Gruden says Vermeil-coached teams tend to reflect their leader's strong-willed approach.
"They're always good," said Gruden of Vermeil's teams. "They're always good, disciplined, well-coached, emotional, passionate about playing, and they're prepared to go. They're prepared to go the length. They're going to go the distance against you no matter where the game is and what the situation is. They're going to go for him for 60 minutes."