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In last week’s Bucs Briefing I wrote about the weaknesses on Tampa Bay’s 2020 punt coverage unit, and how it almost cost them in the Super Bowl. Improving the Bucs punt team is a priority in 2021, and several players were brought in that should help. Those players will also be tasked with improving other aspects of Tampa Bay’s special teams. One of those units will be the Bucs’ kickoff team, which made history in 2020 – but not in a good way.

According to research going as far back as 1978, Tampa Bay’s 2021 kickoff team was the worst in NFL history on a per return basis. The unit allowed a ridiculous 33.6 yards per return, four yards worse than the next closest team. It was the worst mark in recorded NFL history by more than a full yard, one of only three teams to ever allow more than 30 yards per kickoff return in a season.

The worst? Ever? That bad?

Yes, that bad. It’s hard to blame special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong too much, as the 2020 season looks like an outlier for his group. In 2019 Armstrong’s unit allowed just nine kickoff returns, the second-lowest mark in the NFL, and allowed just 23 yards per return. That’s around the league average.

Now, for some good news. The Bucs only allowed 14 kickoff returns all season long, the third-fewest in the NFL. Only Carolina (seven) and Washington (nine) permitted less. So while the Bucs kick coverage group was completely abysmal in the majority of those 14 situations, we are talking about a very limited set of plays. When you consider every unit to take the field for a team, kickoff coverage or kickoff return are probably the least important.

Bradley Pinion is the biggest strength of the Bucs kickoff team. Of the Bucs 126 kickoffs, Pinion sent 112 into the end zone or out of the field of play. His remarkable consistency helped the coverage team stay afloat, barely exposing them to opposing return units.

Even on the 14 returns the Bucs allowed during the season, hardly any of those opportunities were Pinion’s fault. In Weeks 1-4, the Bucs didn’t face a single return. In Week 5, former Bears return man Cordarelle Patterson took three kicks back for returns of 40, 47 and 32 yards, but fielded all of them 8-9 yards deep in the end zone.

Bucs kickoff

Even with Pinion’s significant assists via deep kickoffs, the Bucs return group was unable to corral the impact of one of the league’s better return men. Patterson gashed the Bucs all game on kickoff returns, quietly contributing to Tampa Bay’s maddening, 20-19 loss. Several specialists struggled for the Bucs, with rookie outside linebacker Cam Gill the most notable weakness in the play above. Also, Pat O’Connor appears to get way out of his gap and can’t recover ground.

Over the next two weeks, the long return against the Bucs was a four-yarder on a squib kick in Week 7. But in Week 8 against the Giants the coverage unit struggled again, surrendering returns of 31 and 44 yards.

Bucs kickoff

The biggest flaw of the unit throughout the season was their inability to defeat blocks. The Bucs did miss or overrun a few tackles on kick coverage, but their biggest issue was rarely having enough numbers around the ball. Too few defenders showed an ability to evade or stack-and-shed blocks, leaving gaps for returners to run through. I don’t question the effort of the coverage group, but they definitely lacked open-field savvy and the physical brashness that often accompanies great special teamers.

When the Panthers’ Trenton Cannon brought a kick back 98 yards in Week 10, the Bucs all but gave up on keeping kickoffs in the field of play.

Bucs kickoff

In Weeks 11-17 the Bucs were better, allowing just four returns of 27, 26, 27 and 21 yards. Not great, but better. In the playoffs the team surrendered two more 30+ yard returns, but neither came back to bite them.

It was a season of survive and advance for the Bucs kick coverage unit, who used Pinion’s monster leg to avoid exposure in all but 2-3 games all year. That strategy could work again in 2021, but Tampa Bay won’t plan on it. Part of the solution will be replacing a number of regulars from last year’s unit and adding some more talented special teamers to the roster.

Linebacker Joe Jones, cornerback Antonio Hamilton and safety Raven Greene should be immediate upgrades if they make the final roster. The Bucs are also hopeful that at least one of rookie cornerback Chris Wilcox and linebackers Grant Stuard and K.J. Britt will push for time as well.

But it will still likely be on Pinion to keep this unit stable, at least at the beginning of the season. Tampa Bay could be scrambling to gel a unit with several new faces, especially with Ryan Smith departing for Los Angeles after being one of the group’s strongest contributors. If wide receiver Justin Watson doesn’t make the final roster or isn’t active on game days, the unit will need to replace another impactful player. On the flip side, O’Connor, Gill, Ross Cockrell and the departed Andrew Adams could probably all stand to be upgraded.

Ultimately kickoff coverage will be a small part of what the Bucs accomplish in 2021. But when you allow 13 returns of 25 yards or more on 17 attempts (counting playoffs), you need to take your unit back to the drawing board. Armstrong will need to do some serious soul-searching to help Tampa Bay’s kickoff team handle business the few times a year where Pinion isn’t putting the ball out of play.

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About the Author: Jon Ledyard

Jon Ledyard is PewterReport.com's newest Bucs beat writer and has experience covering the Pittsburgh Steelers as a beat writer and analyzing the NFL Draft for several draft websites, including The Draft Network. Follow Ledyard on Twitter at @LedyardNFLDraft
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fredster
3 months ago

They have to get better but not sure they can really in just one year. Losing couple good contributors and not knowing who will replace them. Bears D kept that game close and the crappy special teams did them in. We also had some injuries that game and O line sucked.

eaustinyoung
3 months ago

The Bucs have had PUTRID Special Teams for years. We’ve had good punters over the last handful of years between Anger and Pinion, but most everything else has sucked for at least 10 years.

Naplesfan
Reply to  eaustinyoung
3 months ago

We had great kicking and punting last year. Everything was better last year. I consider all those prior years to be ancient history, not worth getting excited about.

The Freeman
3 months ago

without Deonte Harris injury, i’m not sure they win in NO…
now Cordarelle Patterson and Avery Williams are in our division too!

Horse
3 months ago

Looks like Bucs addressed this issue in the Draft and will carry that concern even further on the Practice Field. Not much else to say about it. Go Bucs!

Captain Sly
3 months ago

I blow up every time I read one of your articles telling us what we need to do. Maybe it’s because of this image I have of you wearing your #7 Steelers jersey coming down here to advise us Bucs fans how to win. That’s a ME problem so I digress. The Bucs didn’t win the SB because they were a perfect team everybody gets that but your articles come off being more critical than constructive. Sure we sucked on ST last year but I recall years when we lead the league on ST and only won two games in… Read more »

drdneast
Reply to  Captain Sly
3 months ago

I like your articles Ledyard but well said Captain Sly. LOL.

aredsoxfan1
Reply to  Captain Sly
3 months ago

So, you just want to read articles about how great the Bucs are every day? Wouldn’t that be super exciting. Stop being such a baby. He even said in the article the kickoff teams are about the least important aspect of a football team. Good article Ledyard, keep them coming. I am always happy to read about where the Bucs can make improvements.

BucLife
3 months ago

I disagree when saying that coaching likely has little to do with the poor performance. I think it is a big part, even guys getting out of their lanes can be attributed to the lack of drilling down on that. While surely there could be better Special Teams players, athletically our guys are still very cababable of doing a decent job (just like in all NFL teams), it’s about teaching these guys to do well there too. While defeating blocks is partially a mindset, it is also teachable as well. And even getting touchbacks on the majority of kickoffs is… Read more »

Naplesfan
3 months ago

Well, maybe there’s a relationship buried in there somewhere. Pinion is so good at pinning them back on the 25 yard line that our coverage guys don’t get much good game experience chasing down returners? Just a thought. We should be better than league worst in every important category, and it certainly is a bit frustrating to see opponents get long returns on us game after game, even if it doesn’t amount to a large number of kickoffs given Pinion’s performance. But hey, we’re defending World Champions and I am not going to be a picayune critic of the world’s… Read more »

Barnz1
3 months ago

Special teams for me has always been overrated impact on winning. I think coaches just harp on about it because it should be the easiest thing to get right so it is the most frustrating thing if you stuff it up.
But with Pinion booming the ball through the end zone 90% of the time the kick off coverage doesn’t matter much.

aredsoxfan1
Reply to  Barnz1
3 months ago

I agree ST can be overrated, especially in today’s game where they matter even less than they used to. But occasionally a big play on ST can win a game for you, or lose one. So, hopefully the team can improve a bit this year and make a big play to help us squeak out a close game.

scubog
3 months ago

Seems to me the coverage unit gets so accustomed to the returner downing the ball in the end zone on the few times the ball doesn’t sail over his head that they tend to relax. Then, when the returner decides to come out (not that kind of come out) they have an “Oh shit” moment, panic, and the returner is out the gate. Big unexpected returns really give teams a boost after just giving up a score. It’s important not to allow that to happen. Looks like the off-season moves have that in mind.

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