Who’s next?

Defensive back Ryan Smith is the latest Buccaneer to take a crack at returning kicks for Tampa Bay and he’s not getting off to a great start. The rookie’s toughest performance came last Sunday in San Francisco. It wasn’t just that Smith didn’t show anything special on his short returns, either. Two poor judgement calls led to Tampa Bay being pinned deep to start drives.

Following the 49ers’ game-opening touchdown march, Smith fielded Phil Dawson’s kick about two yards deep, hesitated and then ran directly into the backs of his blockers and the oncoming coverage. The Bucs had to start at their own 13.

Ryan Smith's versatility was a big reason why the Bucs drafted him - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs DB Ryan Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The wrong choice after San Francisco went up 14-0 later in the first quarter created an even worse result. Dawson lobbed an almost perfectly placed kick toward the front corner of the end zone in an attempt to pin Smith. It was only almost perfect because Smith hauled in the kick with both feet planted a yard deep behind the goal line. With the 49ers coverage unit bearing down, the rookie didn’t quickly drop to a knee but raced out and got planted at the Bucs 6.

“Ryan, on the first one he brought out, I don’t think he fully committed to it,” head coach Dirk Koetter said while addressing Sunday’s ineffective return game during his Monday afternoon press conference. “I think he hesitated a little bit and if you hesitate on that play, it’s not going to work out. And then after the penalty, when they ran that mortar kick with kicking off from the 50, I think Ryan just kind of lost track of where he was. It was close. ‘Am I in the end zone, not in the end zone?’ If you’re unsure, you’ve got to bring it out. And we didn’t block those as well as we can.”

For the game, Smith totaled 20 return yards on two attempts. He cost the Bucs offense 31 total yards that would have been awarded by simply taking a knee and getting the ball at the 25. The rule change of touchbacks moving up from the 20 to the 25 is an adjustment returners and teams are still getting used to, Koetter said.

“Well most of the league is being pretty conservative,” he said. “I think the number one team in kickoff returns last year got it to the 25-yard line. Well, they’re giving you the ball on the 25-yard line. So in our opinion, you’re crazy not to take [a touchback]. I think the teams that are bringing it out are teams that have veteran returns guys that have proven themselves in this league.”

While defending Tampa Bay’s current options – Smith and second year receiver/punt returner Adam Humphries – Koetter acknowledged that more is required moving forward.

“We have no problem with Ryan, or Adam if he’s back there. We have no problem with our return guys,” Koetter said. “When we do bring the ball out, we have to improve. We’ve been doing okay, but yesterday we took a little step back there.”

The Bucs need someone back deep they can trust – trust to be careful with the football and trust to make the right decisions.

Bucs WR Adam Humphries – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

Bucs WR Adam Humphries – Photo by: Mark Lomoglio/PR

As the team prepares for Sunday’s home date with the Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay owns by far the worst kick return average in the NFL. Their 13.6-yard average on seven returns is 3.1 yards behind the 31st ranked Cleveland Browns. Smith has gone for 11.8 yards on four attempts, Humphries has taken two kicks back and posted a 14.5-yard average, and receiver Cecil Shorts III went 19 yards on one opportunity.

Tampa Bay hasn’t averaged fewer than 20 yards per kick return (which still isn’t a great average) since 2005, when Torrie Cox and Edell Shepherd led a group that went 19.5 yards per attempt.

The inability to pick up decent yardage on kick returns factors into the Bucs having to start so many drives behind their own 20. According to the website sportingcharts.com, 22 of Tampa Bay’s 77 total drives (22.6 percent) have required over 80-yard marches to get to the end zone. That’s tied with the New York Jets as the fourth-worst percentage in the league. Some of those 22 drives began after punts or turnovers, of course, but the kick return unit needs to do more to lower that percentage.

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About the Author: Eric Horchy

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chetthevette
chetthevette
5 years ago

Give Russell Shepard the job. He seems to be able to a lot of things good.
GO BUCS

WiltheBrewer
WiltheBrewer
5 years ago

Humphries HAD been solid at PR-but that SF game was BAD…

drdneast
drdneast
5 years ago

Hump seemed to be fighting with the sun along with all the receivers and the Niners returners all day. I believe this is a common complaint in that Stadium. As far as Ryan Smith, my biggest complaint about him was his attempting to run back the kick from the 50 yard line. He needed to be coached up before that play because there was plenty of time. If he wasn’t, the blame lands squarely on the special teams coach. All Smith needed to be told before the play began was to plant both feet on the goal line. If he… Read more »

scubog
scubog
Reply to  drdneast
5 years ago

“Coaches fault”? You really think this is a foreign concept that any kick returner playing Mighty Mites wouldn’t know. I can hear the coaching point now. Listen up Ryan, if you catch the ball in the endzone; (you know where that is right); do like you’ve seem Colin Kaepernick or Tim Tebow do and go down on one knee. Don’t move until you hear this whistle blow and see the referee wave his arms back and forth. If you catch the ball in the field of play (you know where that is right) you have to run behind the guys… Read more »

jmeeks
jmeeks
5 years ago

We have got to get this resolved and needs to be done quickly. Smith scared the hell out of me,bonehead plays even for a rookie.until we can find a return guy,just take the ball at the twenty-five yard line.coach says he isn’t worried,I love our coach but he better worried.

jmeeks
jmeeks
5 years ago

Coach better get worried.