The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have lost a well-regarded coach on special teams in Rich Bisaccia following last season, but the units have remained impressive so far in 2011 under the guidance of Dwayne Stukes.
Through four weeks of football, the Bucs boast top-10 rankings in multiple special teams categories. Two of those are associated with limiting opponents' room to run on kickoff and punt situations.
Both coverage units expect to be put to the test Sunday afternoon in San Francisco when 49ers return man Ted Ginn, Jr. sets up deep to receive whatever kicker/punter Michael Koenen has to offer.
“Ginn’s been dangerous since he’s come into the league,” Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said. “He’s one of those guys.”
San Francisco’s speedy fifth-year special teams weapon out of Ohio State enters Sunday ranked third in the NFL returning kicks, with a 34.3-yard average, and 12th bringing back punts, with a 10.7-yard average.
Ginn’s potential explosiveness was on full display during the 49ers’ Week 1 win over Seattle. He returned both a kickoff (102 yards) and a punt (55 yards) for touchdowns during the span of a minute in the fourth quarter, helping propel San Francisco to its 33-17 victory. In five NFL seasons, Ginn has now taken three kicks and three punts to the house.
The Bucs will look to counter that with coverage units surrendering just 15.9 yards per kickoff return on seven attempts and 4.8 yards per punt return on 11 tries. The longest runbacks allowed have been Joe Lefeged’s 28-yard kick return Monday night against Indianapolis and two punt returns of 13 yards, one by Detroit’s Stefan Logan and another by Atlanta’s Eric Weems. Koenen’s big leg has helped Tampa Bay rank among the league leaders in opponent starting field position after kickoffs. On average, opposing offenses have had to begin series from just inside their own 18 yard line.
“I feel like it’s going to be a heavyweight fight with those guys,” Morris said. “Our special teams have been really good; their special teams have been really good. It’s two young teams going out there competing.”
Ginn won’t be the only return man faced with cracking tough coverage squads, though. Tampa Bay’s Preston Parker, who has taken over full punt and kick return responsibilities, is tasked with the same challenge against San Francisco.
49ers punter Andy Lee possesses one of the strongest legs in the league [52.2-yard gross average] and tops the rankings in net punting average [46.1 yards]. Opposing punt returners are getting only 8.6 yards per punt return against Lee and the Niners. Kicker David Akers has recorded touchbacks on 12 of his 23 kickoffs and opponents are picking up 21.3 yards when attempting returns.
Parker has ably filled in for injured kick returner Sammie Stroughter and has taken over full-time duties on punt situations from Michael Spurlock since Week 2 in Minnesota. Parker’s attempted half the number of punt returns as Ginn [seven compared to 14] but is right with him in terms of average [10.4 yards]. His long has been a 23 yarder two weeks ago against Atlanta. Parker’s long on kickoffs was for 30 yards on the turf at Minnesota and he’s picking up 23.6 yards per attempt.
Despite a quick turnaround after playing this past Monday night and some cross-country traveling, Morris said he has full confidence in the Bucs’ special teams stepping up in San Francisco.
“We have the short week going out to the west coast. They’ll be at home so we’ve got to stand up to the challenge, we’ve got to rise. I look forward to that because we’ve got a lot of good guys on our special teams that can make big plays at any given time and we want those guys to get out there and make those plays.”