Michael Koenen has averaged 44.3 yards per punt this season; if maintained through three more games, that would stand as the third-best single-season mark in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. The record – 45.6 by Josh Bidwell in 2005 – is well within reach for Koenen, too.
More importantly, he has a 39.2-yard net through his first 13 Buccaneer games, which is significantly better than the team record of 37.8, set by Tommy Barnhardt in 1996. Koenen has a lopsided ratio of 21 punts dropped inside the 20 versus just three touchbacks all season. Furthermore, as the team's kickoff specialist, Koenen has blasted 27 touchbacks, already a franchise single-season record. Just under 50% of his kickoffs have been downed in the end zone – or have sailed completely over it.
Simply put, Koenen has been the field-position weapon the Buccaneers expected him to be when they signed him away from Atlanta as an unrestricted free agent this past July. In a season in which many things haven't gone as planned, that maneuver has produced the expected results.
However, Koenen did not give the Bucs their expected field-position edge during last Sunday's 41-14 loss in Jacksonville, and in that respect he had a lot of company on the Tampa Bay sideline. As an early 14-0 lead dissolved into a deficit of the same size during a seven-minute, four-touchdown barrage by the Jaguars, the Bucs appeared to lose all the momentum they had gained during a dominant first quarter. As Head Coach Raheem Morris explained Wednesday, however, "momentum" is just a nebulous concept that essentially boils down to taking control of field position.
"Momentum is the clichéd word for television, but it's really about changing the field position around," said Morris. "Really, you've got to find a way to recapture field position. That's what happened to us the other day. We never had an opportunity to recapture field position."
After the Buccaneers went up 14-0 early in the second quarter, the defense followed with a three-and-out and the offense took its next drive to midfield. The drive unfortunately ended there, but the Bucs had kept control of the momentum – i.e. field position – and appeared poised to widen their lead after forcing another punt. The game started to get out of the Bucs' control moments later, however, when Preston Parker had the football dislodged just after he fielded the punt by a hard hit from Montell Owens. The ball flew back towards the Bucs' end zone and was easily returned for a touchdown by Jacksonville's Colin Coherty.
The problems mounted from there. A 31-yard mis-hit punt; a grounding penalty, one of 12 infractions by the Bucs on the day; a 62-yard breakdown on a deep pass to TE Marcedes Lewis; a holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff; a sack-fumble leading to another defensive touchdown; an interception on the sideline; and so on. It was, rather suddenly, 28-14 at halftime and the Bucs never recovered.
"We got a big three-and-out and they punted the ball to us, then they came back and got a three-and-out and we end up getting a punt, and maybe it's our worst day of the year punting the football," said Morris. "We shank a punt, which usually doesn't happen to our kicker. It was a spiral that we couldn't get out of for awhile, a funk that we couldn't get out of, until eventually it overtook you and you lost that football game."
Morris said the key to keeping one bad moment – Parker's fumble – from turning into a momentum swing is for somebody to make a play to change field position.
"You've got to find a way to break that, somebody – whether it's Koenen bombing a 90-yard punt and pinning them back on their one-yard line, or going out there getting a three-and-out and getting the ball back at the 50. Those are the things that have got to happen when things start to spiral on you. You need somebody to make a play."
Koenen averaged just 37.8 yards on five punts in Jacksonville, with a net of 32.8. As Morris notes, however, that's an unusual final line for the veteran punter, who has been very consistent this year. The Bucs can reasonably expect Koenen to be right back at top form this Saturday against Dallas. However, the team must continue to work to reduce its penalties and turnovers, the former of which has been an issue all year and the latter of which has gotten worse recently. The Bucs turned the ball over a season-high seven times in Jacksonville, all but one of them in their own territory. Obviously, that makes it impossible to stay on top of the field-position battle.
As such, just like the Bucs have seen some improvement in areas such as run gap fits due to stressing it on the practice field, this week there has been added emphasis on holding on to the football. The Bucs had just three lost fumbles through their first eight games but have given it away in that manner eight times in the last five outings.
"We did a little fundamental work, worked more on ball security, some of the things we need to do better as a football team," said Morris of Wednesday's practice. "All those things are fun to do at this point. We've got to get these guys going. It's about building a lasting contender and the only way you do that is you get a chance to take advantage every time you're on the grass. That's what we're doing right now.
"We want to get these guys a better football team. The excitement will come, the excitement will be here. Right now we're in a preparation mode, a get-better mode, as far as fundamentals for our football team."
On the other hand, the Bucs' defense can help in the field position struggle by getting turnovers of its own, and that crew has produced seven takeaways in the last four games. One of those was an interception by Mason Foster in the end zone early in the second half in Jacksonville as the Bucs tried to reclaim the "momentum" after halftime. On the very next play, Blount did just that by ripping off an impressive 23-yard run, almost to midfield, only to give it right back with a fumble at the end.
Blount has three lost fumbles this season, all in the last three weeks, which has tempered what has otherwise been a very strong second half of the season for him. The Buccaneers are going to continue to count on Blount to provide the sort of big plays that instantly change field position, and thus they are going to make sure his recent fumble issues do not turn into any kind of lasting problem.
"Wherever he's been, he's been the biggest, fastest human out there on the field at all times," said Morris, explaining that Blount has to be more aware of ball security after breaking out into the open. "Now we even out the scales a little bit, people get a little faster, so now ball security becomes more of an issue for him. So you've got to teach that skill, and that's something that can be taught. Tiki Barber, when he first came in the league, he put the ball on the ground a little bit. But he figured it out, he came back with it high-and-tight. Those guys learn that skill and they get great at it."
Bennett vs. Bennett
It is a virtual certainty that at some point on Saturday night, Cowboys running back Felix Jones will take a handoff and head towards the right end of the line. There, he may have to get by one of the Buccaneers' best run-stopping defensive linemen, third-year man Michael Bennett. Perhaps, his quest to do so, he'll get help from a 270-pound tight end the Cowboys often call on for his rugged blocking.
That tight end is named Martellus Bennett. The Bucs' Michael Bennett plans to just refer to him as "number 80."
Martellus and Michael are brothers, the latter about 16 months older. They both played their college football at Texas A&M, Martellus going to Dallas as a second-round pick in 2008 and Michael signing with the Seattle Seahawks as a rookie free agent a year later. They have played, through the years, a whole lot of football together.
On Saturday night, for the first time, Martellus and Michael Bennett will square off against each other in an NFL game. The Buccaneers last played the Cowboys in the 2009 season opener, but that was a few weeks before Tampa Bay snatched Bennett off waivers from the Seahawks.
The Bucs' Bennett says he is looking forward to the matchup, but when it comes time for shoulder pads to hit shoulder pads, he knows he has to remove the family connection from the equation.
"It's a big deal to go against each other," said Michael Bennett. "We're always talking about who the best player is and this is going to be a big game. I told him, 'I'm not going to take it easy on you because you're my brother,' and he said the same thing. It is our job, so we've got to play hard against each other."
Study of Cowboys game tape has shown Michael that his brother is very commonly brought in to block down on opposing ends. Michael has started 10 games at left end for Tampa Bay this season, and though he has currently ceded that starting spot to rookie Da'Quan Bowers, he is still heavily involved in the D-end rotation, sometimes also lining up on the right side.
Michael missed two recent games due to a groin strain but fortunately returned to the lineup last Sunday in Jacksonville and contributed a pair of tackles, including yet another one on a running back behind the line of scrimmage. He also didn't practice on Wednesday due to a toe injury but is hopeful he'll be in the lineup on Sunday. It would be a cruel twist of fate if he were to miss the game against the Cowboys, because the Bennett family has had this date circled on their calendars since the schedule first came out in April.
"My family's been planning it for a long time, coming to this game," said the Bucs' Bennett with a smile. "They've got a whole itinerary of what they're going to be doing. So it should be pretty fun."
Michael hopes he can not only gain intra-Bennett bragging rights but also show his family that the Buccaneers are still a team on the rise.
"It's a big deal because it's the first time we've played against each other in the NFL," he said. "Everybody in the world wants tickets and tickets aren't free! But it's a big deal, especially because it's a big prime-time game against Tony Romo and the Cowboys. It's a game to show what the Bucs can do. It's going to be a good platform for us to start the next season.
"This is the game that's really going to determine the next two games and how we're going to go into the offseason. It's going to be a transitional offseason, all these young people working together and trying to figure out how to come back together next season and become a better team."
D-Line Banged Up
Bennett wasn't the only Buccaneer defensive lineman watching practice from the sideline Wednesday as the team had to go with a thinner-than-usual rotation with that crew during the two-hour-plus session.
In addition to Bennett, the Buccaneers held defensive tackles Brian Price and Albert Haynesworth out of Wednesday's action. Price had tried to practice on Tuesday but was unable to finish the week-opening workout due to the injured ankle he first suffered in Week 13 against Carolina. Haynesworth is frequently given a lighter week of practice than some of his younger teammates as he manages a sore knee, much like the Buccaneers do with tight end Kellen Winslow.
On the other hand, cornerback Aqib Talib continued to look like a good bet to play Saturday against Dallas after practicing for a second straight day. He had missed most of the Bucs' last two games with a hamstring strain but is currently running without difficulty.