The rash of injuries Tampa Bay has suffered this season have taken a toll on the Bucs special teams units, particularly the return game.
Bucs wide receiver Mark Jones was having an outstanding season as a kickoff returner, averaging 28.6 yards per attempt. But his season came to an unfortunate end when he sustained a torn patellar tendon against the Detroit Lions in Week 7.
With Jones out for the year, the Bucs turned to cornerback Torrie Cox, who has averaged 22.8 yards per return and returned two kickoffs against Jacksonville last Sunday before suffering his own knee injury, a torn ACL, while covering a kick.
That injury prompted the Bucs to put WR Chad Lucas back to return two kickoffs, but he averaged just 17.5 yards per return vs. the Jaguars and was released on Wednesday.
While the Bucs are averaging a respectable 23.3 yards per kickoff return, they currently rank 23rd in the NFL in starting field position (25-yard line), which is an area that needs to improve if Tampa Bay's 17th-ranked offense is going to be more productive over the second half of the season.
With Jones and Cox sidelined for the year with their respective knee injuries, the Bucs are seriously considering using running back Michael Bennett as a kickoff returner against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
"We did that a little bit today," Bennett said of returning kickoffs for the Bucs. "To what extent I'm not really sure yet. We'll find out more about that later in the week."
The Buccaneers traded a conditional draft pick in 2008 and 2009 to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for Bennett on Oct. 16. Tampa Bay brought Bennett to the Bucs to help their running back position, which has been depleted by injuries sustained by Cadillac Williams (knee) and Michael Pittman (ankle).
The 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett is still digesting head coach Jon Gruden's offensive system, but he has already made an impact in it, carrying the ball five times for 45 yards (9.0 avg.) and a 19-yard touchdown he had against Jacksonville, his first score since the 2005 season.
"It's in English now, so it's coming along pretty well," Bennett said of learning Tampa Bay's offense, which he compared to learning Chinese two weeks ago. "I've just got to get used to knowing that there's going to be new stuff every week and be prepared to go over the things I've learned in previous weeks. I've been able to get in there without the coaches telling me what to do on certain plays, which is good because then I can just go out there and do it."
Now the Bucs are considering using Bennett's speed and playmaking ability to help their ailing return game.
"We might do that," Gruden said of Bennett possibly returning kickoffs. "We had several guys doing it in training camp – [wide receiver] David Boston, Michael Pittman – and now we lose Mark Jones and Torrie Cox. We're down to our fifth guy here. We're looking for a candidate and we'll look into his situation."
One thing Bennett, a former first-round pick, would bring to Tampa Bay's kickoff return team is speed. He ran a 4.27 40-yard dash time over the summer. As a running back, Bennett also possesses good vision.
While he hasn't returned kickoffs at the NFL level, Bennett does have some experience doing that from his collegiate days at Wisconsin, where he returned seven kickoffs for 173 yards (24.7 avg.).
"I returned some kickoffs in college and almost scored on one," Bennett said of returning kickoffs at Wisconsin. "If you want to take out my high school tape we can go all day long. I've never returned at the pro level. It would be a big thing for me and definitely another adjustment, but I have no problem doing that."
Not only do they hope the injuries cease, the Bucs would like to put an end to their drought in terms of never having returned a kickoff for a touchdown in a regular season or post-season game in their 32 seasons of existence.
The official count for Bucs kickoff returns without a touchdown is up to 1,848, and while players like running backs Earnest Graham and Pittman, and cornerback Phillip Buchanon could be called on to return kickoffs, Bennett hopes he has the opportunity to bring that streak to an end.
"It would be good to return one for a touchdown for the fist time in Bucs history," said Bennett. "It would be nice."
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