On the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' all-time kickoff return chart, Micheal Spurlock and Sammie Stroughter each rank in the top seven in terms of career return average. On the Bucs' all-time punt return chart, Spurlock and Stroughter each rank in the top five in terms of career average.
Stroughter's pace of 29.5 yards per kickoff return makes him the franchise leader; Spurlock stands fifth at 24.6. On punts, it's Spurlock who tops the list at 12.7 yards per, with Stroughter seventh at 9.9.
Obviously, the Buccaneers are pleased to have both of those dynamic return men on their current roster. They would be even more pleased if their 2010 return numbers more closely resembled those outstanding numbers above, and that's another reason the team spent its bye week examining new ways to divvy up the wide receiver reps on offense.
Tampa Bay, which in 2009 was first in the NFL in kickoff return average and fourth in punt return average, is currently 19th in the former category and 20th in the latter. The Bucs have gotten 7.5 yards per punt return on seven tries so far, all by Spurlock, and 22.3 yards per kickoff return on nine tries, seven by Spurlock and two by rookie wide receiver Preston Parker.
The obvious – and quite valid – rebuttal is that the Buccaneers have played only three games so far and the sample size is too small to draw any real conclusions yet. That said, the Buccaneers do expect more explosive returns in the kicking game, and to that end they're looking for the best ways to utilize Spurlock, Stroughter and potentially even Parker on a larger basis.
"[It's] not that I'm happy with it," said Head Coach Raheem Morris, drawing a distinction between being concerned and being greedy for more. "You're never happy until you score a touchdown. You'd certainly like to get more and I think we'll be able to with the plan we have right now."
Stroughter was an occasional spark in the return game as a rookie in 2009, during which his role on offense was as the slot, or "Zebra," receiver. After injuries to both Stroughter and Clifton Smith last fall, the team brought Spurlock back into the fold and he immediately contributed a game-changing punt return touchdown at New Orleans in Week 16. Spurlock, who also recorded the first kickoff return touchdown in Buccaneers history back in 2007, established himself as an NFL-caliber return man early in his career but has spent roughly five years trying to prove he is also a legitimate pro receiver.
Spurlock turned the corner in that journey this past summer, and he started the season as the team's primary slot receiver, with Stroughter now starting at flanker. In the team's season-opening win over Cleveland, he provided the go-ahead points with a 33-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. Ironically for Spurlock, now that he has proven his ability as an NFL receiver, that job could be cutting into his effectiveness in his original and very valuable role as a return man.
"You've got to find ways to rest Spurlock a little bit – he's the starting Zebra for us and playing return guy takes a little bit away from you," said Morris. "We've seen that happen to a bunch of guys in the league – one of the best ever in Chicago [Devin Hester] and [Carolina's] Steve Smith when he was a rookie. Playing receiver takes a little bit away from your return game. So with the emergence of Arrelious Benn and the emergence of those young wideouts, Mo [Stovall] coming back off some of his injuries and being able to play for us some on first and second downs to spell those guys, [that will] enable us to have a more dynamic returner. You can have that in Spurlock or in Parker or Sammie Stroughter."
The first step for Parker is to be active on Sundays. It is not uncommon for the Bucs to keep only four receivers among their 45 game-day inactives, as they did in the season-opener against Cleveland, and the obvious four are Spurlock, Stroughter, Benn and Mike Williams. The Bucs kept five receivers active in Week Two at Carolina, but it was Stovall, a proven special teams ace, who took that fifth spot. With Stovall's back ailing in Week Three, Parker got the call and was thus available to provide a spark in the return game with two kickoff runbacks for 52 yards.
The entire receiving corps is now healthy, but that doesn't automatically mean Parker will be back on the inactive list.
"He's certainly in consideration as one of the guys to be up," said Morris of the undrafted rookie. "He's never one of those automatic downs, he's never one of those automatic ups yet, but he's certainly in consideration because of his return ability and his special teams ability. He's a pretty tough guy, he goes down there and covers kicks for us. He does a lot of different things for us so he's always a consideration to be up."
If Parker is active in Cincinnati, the Buccaneers will have plenty of intriguing options to choose from in the return game. With Benn potentially getting a larger share of the reps, and thus reducing the load on Stroughter and Spurlock, someone should be rested and ready to supply that spark the Bucs are seeking.
Another Road Test
The Buccaneers have won their last three road games, which might be as good an indication as any that this young team has turned the corner, putting its early-2009 struggles behind it and emerging as a real threat on any given Sunday.
Those three wins include one over the eventual 2009 NFL champs (New Orleans), one at the end of a cross-country flight to the West Coast (Seattle) and one in the house of perhaps the Bucs' most emotionally-charged opponent (Carolina). Now Tampa Bay will head to Cincinnati with a chance to record its first four-game road winning streak since a stretch that surrounded its run to the Super Bowl XXXVII title.
The 2002-2003 Bucs actually won five road games in a row, two to finish the '02 regular season and three to start out the next year (in order, at Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Washington).
There's no real mystery to winning a large percentage of one's road games; the best teams win both home and away, and the Buccaneers were obviously a strong team in 2002 and at the beginning of 2003. The current Bucs are still seeking to prove to the league that they are a strong team as well, but Morris thinks they already have one collective trait that can help them in hostile locations.
"We're so young, I think we kind of like the adversity a little bit," he said. "They kind of thrive on the boos. We roll into the stadium and they kind of get a little bit of energy, being angry because everybody hates them. It's that us-against-the-world mentality."
A 2-0 start on the road, something the team hasn't accomplished since 2005, would be a great start on a larger journey. The Bucs have just eight previous 2-0 road starts in team annals (1978, 1979, 1990, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2005) and they advanced to the playoffs in five of those years ('79, '97, '00, '02 and '05).
Every NFL team hopes the bye week will improve its overall roster health, and it usually does. Even the Buccaneers, who got their bye just three games into the season and thus with a roster mostly injury-free, saw some benefits from the time off.
The results were evident on the practice field Wednesday afternoon, when all 53 players on the active roster were involved in the workout and only two were limited.
Linebacker Niko Koutouvides was one of the two limited players, but even that was good news, as he appears to be nearing a return from the ankle injury that cost him the second and third game of the season. Koutouvides is one of the team's top special teams performers, leading the team with 18 kick-coverage stops in 2009, and he had one tackle in the season-opener before suffering his injury on the practice field the following week.
Starting left defensive end Kyle Moore was the other limited Buccaneer, thanks to a shoulder ailment. The only other names on Tampa Bay's list were Stovall (back) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee); both participated fully in Wednesday's workout.
Stovall has been inactive for two of the Buccaneers' first three games, but before he suffered an ankle injury in the opening preseason game he had debuted as the starting flanker on the team's first depth chart of the year. That spot now belongs to second-year man Sammie Stroughter, and the Bucs have also liked what they've seen from such reserves as Micheal Spurlock, Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker. Still, Stovall ranks as the most experienced player on a very young receiving squad, and he also possesses an unparalleled work ethic that should quickly get him back into the mix for playing time.
"He's just got to be a fighter," said Morris. "People have emerged, people have come on strong. And I know Mo – he'll work his way back into the rotation. He's a hard-worker. The one thing we know about Mo, he's going to go out there and do everything he can to be a factor."
Cincinnati, which is coming off a hard-hitting game with its instate rivals, the Cleveland Browns, submitted a lengthier injury report to start the week on Wednesday. The list included three players who didn't practice, three others were limited and, among those six men, three who are listed as starters on the Bengals' defense.
Defensive end Jonathan Fanene (hamstring), wide receiver Jordan Shipley (concussion) and safety Roy Williams (knee) were held out of Wednesday's practice. Linebacker Dhani Jones (hamstring), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (forearm) and running back Bernard Scott (hamstring) were limited. Williams, Jones and Joseph are starters on the Bengals' depth chart.