CB Torrie Cox and the Bucs' kickoff return team want to produce a better average starting spot for drives following kickoffs
The last thing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers addressed on the practice field on Friday, before sending the players home to pack for Saturday morning's flight, was kickoff returns.
They finished Wednesday and Thursday's practices with that emphasis, as well. Facing the league's top-ranked kickoff coverage team on Sunday in San Francisco, the Bucs want to be prepared to take the lead in the field-position battle.
"We are concerned about that," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We work it hard. I'm really pleased with what [Special Teams Coach] Rich Bisaccia's done with these guys. We've got a lot of turnover on our special teams and it hasn't been easy on him. But we're making strides and hopefully it shows on Sunday."
Truth be told, though, that particular phase of the Bucs' play has not gone well this season, despite what has been a great season overall on special teams. Tampa Bay ranks last in kickoff return average, at 17.1 yards per runback, and last in average kickoff drive start. The normal starting point for the Buccaneers' offense following a kickoff is the 22-yard line; compare that with the league leaders in that category, Buffalo, which starts on average at its own 33.
It might seem a little nit-picky to mention this, given that the Bucs are 5-1 and atop the NFC standings. They've certainly been able to overcome difficult field position on a number of occasions, launching seven touchdown drives of 70 or more yards already and adding five field goal drives that began that far away from the end zone. A red-hot punter in Josh Bidwell has helped the Bucs push the opponent back when their own drives have stalled, and kicker Matt Bryant's field goal accuracy has extended Tampa Bay's scoring range. Still, improving the team's kickoff return fortunes is clearly an issue of great importance to the coaching staff.
A couple of muffed kickoffs have contributed to the problem, though they haven't led to any turnovers. Perhaps even more troubling has been the torrent of yellow flags that has pelted the Bucs' return unit. Holding calls on kickoff returns are often much more damaging than the numbers suggest, because in addition to a 10-yard step-off they also often erase the better part of a long gain.
The issue is not unique to the Buccaneers, according to Gruden.
"We might be leading the league in penalties [they are actually fifth], but there are about 27 teams right behind us, if you want to be honest," he said. "So there are a lot of people right now scratching their heads over how to improve the special teams in terms of eliminating penalties. Many of these fouls are in the kicking game. They're the long plays. It's 11 guys running down the field and 11 guys approaching them and there are a lot of witnesses there to see what's happening."
The 49ers, for all of their statistical problems, have been very good at keeping the striped shirts happy. San Francisco has committed a league-low 35 penalties, for just 233 yards. That's less than half of the 508 yards the Bucs have cost themselves with 62 infractions. In addition – or perhaps for that reason – the 49ers have allowed just 18.3 yards per kickoff return and an average opponent drive start of the 24-yard line.
Gruden wants one of his return men, whether it be cornerback Torrie Cox, wide receiver Mark Jones or someone else, to contribute some big plays, to make something happen explosively. They won't produce anything lasting, however, if the flags are not kept in check. Gruden knows that it can be difficult to completely eliminate penalties from the return game – watch any NFL broadcast and you'll agree – but knows they must try.
"You've got to coach harder, you've got to be exact in your discipline, and it's not easy," he said. "But that's life."
Practice, Injury Updates
Evidence that the Buccaneers are indeed not taking San Francisco lightly: A focused and intense week of practice.
The Bucs finished up their week of full-speed preparations on Friday with a 90-minute morning workout. As usual, it was a review session following the heavier game-planning work of Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Gruden was thrilled with his team's mid-week efforts.
"We had a great practice yesterday, very spirited," he said. "I was very pleased yesterday and we tied up some loose ends today. We're not perfect, but we're a team, I think, that realizes that details are important and we're trying to correct as many as we can."
The week was uneventful in terms of the team's health status. Last week's bye allowed a lot of bumps and bruises to fade, and the injury report was short, just three players to start the week. All three – safety Dexter Jackson, running back Cadillac Williams and safety Jermaine Phillips – stayed at the same designation all week.
Jackson has already been ruled out with a hamstring injury, and Phillips, probable on the report, is expected to play. Williams is the only real question mark, and Gruden repeatedly shaded toward the positive side of that scenario. Each of the last three days, Gruden said that the team was "optimistic" Williams would play, and the rookie back responded well to his first full week of work in almost a month.
Williams has not played since the first half of the October 2 game against Detroit due to a strained arch in his left foot. He has also worked through a mild hamstring strain, but that is not considered less of an impediment. The quiet rookie doesn't routinely volunteer information about how he's feeling, so the coaches were eager to see with their own eyes how the foot would hold up in practice. So far, so good.
"You need to see him to see where he is," said Gruden. "We're trying to get more information from him but he's a very isolated human being. So we just go out and practice and see how he looks for ourselves. But he looked very good today.
"He's still questionable. We'll sleep on it and see how we feel when we get to San Francisco, but we're optimistic with what we saw."
The Bucs did add two starters to the injury report on Friday, but it's nothing that should cause any concern, despite the names involved.
"We held Derrick Brooks and Simeon Rice today," said Gruden. "It's nothing serious, we just wanted to give them a day off their legs. They've just got some sore lower legs."
San Francisco's injury report did not change on Friday. It still includes nine players, six of whom are questionable or worse. None of those six – which include starting quarterback Alex Smith, starting cornerback and starting left tackle Jonas Jennings – practiced on Friday.
More from Coach Gruden
Gruden addressed several other topics after the week's final practice on Friday, including Brian Griese's successful knee surgery. His thoughts are below.
(on if Brian Griese had his knee surgery) "Yes, he had his surgery and we're excited to say it went great. He won't accompany us to California but he'll be back in the building on Monday. My understanding was that Dr. [John] Zvijac's performance was tremendous once again. For all those people out there who are ever interested in a surgeon, this guy's phenomenal. His background, his expertise, his history speaks for itself. We're excited about it."
(on if he'll watch any movies on the flight to San Francisco) "No, I'll just get ready for the game. It's a big game for us, it's a big game for them and it's been a long time between now and our last game. So we'll try to get our thoughts calculated and be as ready as we can."
(on the challenges of coming back from a bye) "Year by year, the situations are different. You have guys who might be able to take advantage of a bye week to improve a skill or improve a phase of football, and there's a group of guys who might not be able to do anything. You take advantage of it to get some men some rest. It all depends on a year-by-year basis, where your team is, the health of your team and things of that nature. I've never gone into a bye week with a new quarterback; hell, that was completely new and foreign to me. We've had a radical change here. Now, hopefully we can overcome the loss of our quarterback and continue to win some games."
(on if he has seen receivers lobbying Chris Simms for the ball) "There's a lot of people counting catches right now instead of just watching the film. A new quarterback's not going to get a guy going. That isn't going to happen. And a play-caller isn't going to get a guy going. You've got to get yourself going, I don't care what anybody says. The film doesn't lie; practices don't lie. Players know players. If you're a good player, if you're a great player you're going to get open and you're going to get the ball. The arrival of Chris Simms doesn't mean somebody's fantasy football stat is going to be [improved]. 'Gee, we've got a new quarterback, let's buy this stock.' I'm tired of that. We've got to rally around Simms. Whether we're running the ball or throwing the ball or whatever we're doing, we've got to rally around him. It's his third career start. In his first start he got hurt and in his last start he was rusty a little bit, didn't have his best stuff. Hopefully we're ready to roll."
(more on the ball being spread around) "I've got to answer more questions about who's getting how many touches than how we're going to play in the game. I don't care how many touches people get, but we're sensitive about that certainly, trying to get the ball to our best players. But we're trying to get a good enough team where we've got five eligibles who are all pretty good. It's just the world we come from. Some might not agree or like it, but we're doing our best to please everyone."