Buccaneer teammates knew Williams had delivered the fatal blow with his 73-yard punt return touchdown
Punt returners do not take punters lightly.
Included on a punter's job description, down near the bottom, is that they are often the last line of defense against a breakaway punt return. And many a return man has broken wide-eyed into the clear only to be pushed out of bounds by the punter, or slowed down just enough for the rest of the coverage to catch up.
It's even happened to Buccaneer wide receiver and return man par excellence Karl Williams. Williams is the only player in Tampa Bay history to have more than one kick or punt return for a touchdown, but he has lost several others to those wily punters.
So, on Sunday against Buffalo, when Williams' path through the Bills' special teams unit on a fourth-quarter punt return suddenly funneled him right towards punter Chris Mohr, he wasn't taking anything for granted. Fortunately, Williams saw something that gave him confidence.
"I hit the first seam and the punter was standing flat-footed," said Williams. "He couldn't get the angle."
Rewind just a moment, because Mohr was the 11th man who had a shot at Williams before he could reach the Buffalo end zone. Mohr had, in fact, started the play with his best punt of the day, a hard-driven spiral of a blast that had Williams backpedaling from the Bucs' 40 all the way to the 27.
Since the kick went 57 yards and didn't hang overly long, Williams caught the ball without a tackler immediately in his face. There was one Bill cover men barreling downfield, CB Ray Hill, but TE Todd Yoder walled him off to the right and Williams easily side-stepped him left. That sent Williams on a path up the left side, and he dashed through a hole kept wide by solid blocking. Buccaneer DE John McLaughlin, in fact, laid a hard hit on TE Jay Riemersma to keep him from Williams' path near midfield.
At that point, still without having so much as a fingernail scrape on his uniform, Williams came up full speed on Mohr. In a split second, Williams chose to cut outside toward the sideline, and Mohr, flat-footed, couldn't dive in time to trip him or slow him up. The cut did cost him a fraction of a second, however, and two Bills tacklers remained in hot pursuit. LB Keith Newman dove at the nine yard line and just got a hand on Williams' ankle, but the Buc returner kept his balance and finished off the runback.
S Raion Hill, who was also in on the coverage, was frustrated by the failed attempts to lay a hand on Williams. "You break down to make the tackle," said Hill. "He saw me and cut the other way. That situation is a double-edged sword. Sometimes he'll run into you. I thought I had a guy right behind me so I was trying to get him in a good position. It didn't happen."
No, and fully tallied it was 73 yards, the second-longest return of Williams' career and the fourth-longest in Buccaneer history. It was the third touchdown of his career on punt returns and, most likely, the most important. The other two were thrilling plays but came early in a pair of routs of the Chicago Bears (in 1996 and 1997).
This one was probably the most important single play in a nail-biter of a win over Buffalo, which was drastically closer than the 31-17 final score would indicated. Tampa Bay was leading only 17-14 at the time Williams took off on his runback, and the Bucs' offense gained only 180 yards on the night. Williams was still excited about the impact of the play after the game.
"It was a 'choice' return, depending on where he kicks the ball," he said. "We had a great return called. We were waiting for someone to step up and it took a long time to get a hold of a good runback. We wanted to attack them, not just on offense and defense, but on special teams."
Williams and kick returner Reidel Anthony did just that. Williams had 95 yards on three punt returns plus a 35-yard kickoff return and Anthony had two kickoff returns for 39 yards. Together, they helped Tampa Bay post a fantastic average drive start of its own 36-yard line. Even the Bills knew that special teams had cost them a shot at victory.
"The special teams especially hurt us today," said Buffalo RB Jonathan Linton. " We had new guys playing new positions on special teams."
Williams, by contrast, is an old hand, having returned punts for Tampa Bay since the latter half of 1996. Though the Bucs have tried other returns at various times over that span, it always seems to come back to Williams, and for good reason. By any measure of the statistics, the former college free agent from Texas A&M-Kingsville is the greatest punt returner in team history.
Williams is second on the team's all-time punt return list with 1,361 yards on 112 returns, set to move past former Buc Danny Reece in just over 200 more yards despite the fact that Reece has nearly twice as many returns on his ledger (222 for 1,556 yards). Williams' 12.2-yard career average is the best in team history and is among the top career marks in NFL annals.
More impressively, the Bucs have six career touchdowns as a franchise on 959 punt returns. Williams has half of them. Only in his fifth NFL season, Williams most likely has several more magical moments up his sleeve before his career his finished. Punters beware.