Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Kicking Back In: Bucs Special Teams Improve in 07

In one source's long-running evaluation of special teams, the Bucs slipped to 21st in the league rankings in 2006 but rebounded nicely to seventh in 2007, an indication of the team's successful focus on the kicking game

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The Bucs' special teams were at their swarming best for much of the 2007 season

Micheal Spurlock's historic touchdown in Week 15 may be the first highlight that comes to mind when discussing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' special teams play in 2007, but it was only the icing on the cake in terms of the team's overall performance in the kick and return game.

The Bucs, in fact, ran one of the most proficient special teams units in the league in 2007. At least, that is, according to Rick Gosselin, an NFL columnist for The Dallas Morning News, who publishes a very detailed annual ranking of the 32 NFL teams based on their special teams play.

Gosselin ranks the teams using 22 different kicking-game categories and assigns points depending on where a team finishes in each statistic. Teams receive one point for ranking first in a category, all the way up to 32 points for finishing last.

The final tally is then totaled and the team with the lowest score is crowned by Gosselin as the best overall special teams unit in the land. Although Gosselin's yearly rankings are well-received, it is not a system the league or any of its teams use to evaluate their special teams units. However, they are still a useful tool for doing so from the outside, especially in terms of comparing one season to the next.

The Chicago Bears took the top spot in Gosselin's 2007 rankings with 236.5 points, the second consecutive year the Bears have placed No. 1 overall. It's fair to say that Devin Hester and Pro Bowl special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo have something to do with this. In the top five, Chicago finished ahead of the San Diego Chargers (242 points), San Francisco 49ers (268.5 points) and the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans (tied at 277.5 points). You can read Gosselin's full analysis here.

The current generation of Buccaneer teams has always placed a high priority on special teams play and have generally fared well in Gosselin's rankings. However, after the conclusion of the 2006 season, the Buccaneers found themselves ranked a disappointing 21st in the league. This came despite the team finishing No. 1 in kickoff coverage, as the Bucs limited opponents to 18.4 yards per return.

The stat that hurt the Bucs most in Gosselin's rankings in 2006 was field goals made, as the Bucs finished last in the league with 17; one could argue, however, that field goals made are just as much a product of offensive prowess and red-zone efficiency as the strength of the kicking unit. Even discounting that, Tampa Bay had ground to make up in such categories as kickoff return average and points scored and allowed.

And that they did. After that semi-down year in 2006, the Bucs rebounded nicely in the 2007 rankings, climbing all the way into a seventh-place tie with the Green Bay Packers with 318 points.

The team fared particularly well in covering both kickoffs and punts. Based on their opponents' yards-per-return average, the Bucs ranked second in kickoff coverage and seventh in punt coverage.

In addition, the Bucs ranked 12th in kickoff return average (boosted, of course, by Spurlock's momentous, 90-yard runback against Atlanta, the first kickoff return touchdown in franchise history), 13th in both net and gross punting average, and 10th in average opponent drive start, as the Bucs' opponents started their drives at the 26-yard line, on average, after receiving a Tampa Bay kickoff.

Perhaps the only factors that prevented the Bucs from creeping into the top five in the rankings were the team's 6.7-yard average on punt returns (a repeat of a problem in 2006), Corey Smith's block of a Josh Bidwell punt in Week Seven in Detroit and the 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown surrendered to Houston's André Davis in Week 14.

Nonetheless, the Bucs' jump in the rankings placed them higher than any other NFC South team and in a tie for third among all NFC teams. The team's 318 total points across the 22 categories break down to an average rating of 14.45, compared to the 393.5 points and 17.89 average ranking in 2006. This means the Bucs improved, on average, by over three spots per category.

Aside from Spurlock's touchdown, the Bucs received big-time special teams contributions from a number of players. Eight different Bucs finished the 2007 campaign with double-digit special teams tackles, led by Kalvin Pearson and his 21 stops. Punter Josh Bidwell finished in the top half of the league in both gross and net punting average, and kicker Matt Bryant had his best year yet as a Buccaneer.

Bryant set career highs in field goals made (28), field goals attempted (33) and field goal percentage (84.8), a mark that very nearly broke the club record of 85.2 set by Steve Christie in 1990. Bryant was also named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December after making 10 of 11 field goal tries in the month. Spurlock's big moment came in that same month, but overall it was a strong season from beginning to end for the Bucs' special teamers.

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