S John Howell (38) and the Bucs' special teams were determined not to let Detroit's wedge spring Desmond Howard for a big return
NFL head coaches like to speak of special teams play as if it was an equal third of what goes into determining a game's outcome, right up there with offense and defense. That is probably not strictly true.
Sometimes, it is much, much more.
Sunday in the Pontiac Silverdome was one of those times. A week after a late-game special teams play sent the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their doom in Green Bay, inspired work by the kicking teams played an enormous role in a last-second win over Detroit.
There was of course, Karl Williams' 84-yard punt return touchdown, part of an historic day for the underrated sixth-year veteran. And there was the usual dependable work by placekicker Martin Gramatica, though dependable becomes spectacular when the field goal wins the game with four seconds remaining.
However, even with those two providing familiar contributions, the game could still have been lost on special teams without good work across the board by the kicking and kick-coverage units.
"I thought our coverage was pretty good all day on kickoffs and punts," said Head Coach Tony Dungy a day later while running down the special teams components of the Lions game. "I thought Martin obviously kicked the ball well and we had some good opportunities to return. We made the most of them on the punt returns. The kickoff returns we were a man away or an inch away from really breaking some big ones. We've got to just continue to work at that."
No less important was the team's kickoff coverage against return man nonpareil Desmond Howard and the Lions' infamous wedge returns. The Bucs went into the game knowing that each kickoff was going to be a crucial juncture in the game.
"Our guys played hard," said Dungy. "We knew we were going to have to because Detroit has very good special teams, and that was part of getting our win was holding our own there."
The game seemingly got off to a bad special teams start when Sean McDermott's errant snap on a first-quarter field goal try killed a scoring opportunity. However, the special teams had already been hard at work by that point. After Detroit won the opening coin toss, the Bucs kicked off to Howard, busted up the wedge on the right side of the field and stopped him after a return of just 10 yards. Rookie safety John Howell, who had missed the previous game with a concussion, made the tackle.
After the Bucs' defense forced a punt, Williams made the first of several nice returns that were overshadowed by the glow of his late game piece de resistance. Williams saw that the return was not going to go the distance and made the most of it by cutting straight upfield between two tacklers for a gain of 14 yards to the Bucs' 33. Tampa Bay punted four plays later, with Mark Royals booming a 52-yarder and McDermott tackling Howard after a run of just six.
The standout individual contributions continued throughout the afternoon, more than making up for the botched field goal and Williams' muffed punt in the third quarter. Howard was held to just 79 yards on four kickoff returns and 37 yards on four punt returns, with cover men Rabih Abdullah and Dwight Smith each making a pair of diving tackles. In several of those instances, Abdullah and Smith personally broke through Detroit's wedge before also making the tackle.
"The guys covered great," said Gramatica. "Desmond is a top-of-the-line returner and he didn't get anywhere."
A play of that variety can easily be overlooked, but it takes both athleticism and grit. The Lions' five-man wedge, a formation they have been running very frequently for at least three years, can contain up to 1,300 pounds of blockers, with the dangerous Howard hiding somewhere behind. Abdullah and Smith are more in the 200-pound range, but they use a full head of steam and a seemingly reckless self-disregard to get through that front wall to the prize.
In some instances, too, other Buccaneer cover men broke up the wedge, allowing the eventual tacklers through. Second-year safety David Gibson took on this anonymous but crucial task several times; also, on Williams' touchdown return, Gibson took out the last tackler that had a shot at 'The Truth.'
On such a day, it was only fitting that the Bucs' last two plays would be on special teams – Gramatica's game-winning 35-yard shot, which was basically dead center between the uprights, and coverage of the resulting kickoff with four seconds left. Detroit tried a couple of pitches to make something happen on that desperation return, but the Bucs' coverage unit stopped it cold.
Gramatica has not missed a kick of less than 52 yards since last season, so his clutch field goal at the end may have seemed like a foregone conclusion. However, the Bucs' earlier miscue and the Lions' strong kick-rush squad made it something less than automatic.
"The guys up front were outstanding today," said Gramatica. "They're a great block team – they blocked two field goals last week – and (the Bucs' blockers) did a great job this week. I felt comfortable back there, I didn't feel rushed at all. I knew they would protect, and we had a good snap and hold."
The result was a Buccaneer victory, a great percentage of which was earned by the special teams.