In two games since Tampa Bay got toasted on special teams by Atlanta’s Devin Hester, the already underwhelming numbers put up by Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen have sagged even more.
Whether it’s based on strategy, Tampa Bay’s $19.5 million punter getting overly cautious with his attempts or a mix of both, the Bucs sacrificed punt yardage for reduced returns in Pittsburgh and New Orleans. In fact, none of Koenen’s seven punts the past two weeks were returned at all. His current average for net punt yardage this season is a league-worst 42.5 yards, and that was down to 38.3 over the last two games.
Koenen, who is Tampa Bay’s 12th highest paid player based on per-year salary, didn’t divulge much about how his approach may differ from previous seasons, but did say there is added weight given to limiting return opportunities.
“Anytime we take the ball away from the returner is good and we’ve definitely [given up] some returns this year,” Koenen said from in front of his locker Thursday afternoon. “So yeah, causing fair catches and affecting field position is definitely our primary goal.
“We’ve always wanted to keep the ball out of their hands, but we’ve had a couple big returns and are trying to put a little bit more of an emphasis on it.”
Considering Koenen’s longest punt of the year, a 56 yarder in Atlanta, resulted in Hester’s 62-yard touchdown return, there is some merit to dialing back the booming kicks from time to time. The 32-year-old’s second longest punt, however, was a 54 yarder against St. Louis that Rams returner Tavon Austin lost a yard on trying to bring back.
“That wouldn’t be so good all the time to hit it long,” Koenen said. “We want to limit returns and cause fair catches and just take the ball out of their hands all together.”
The sample size is still relatively small, but higher, shorter punts haven’t exactly correlated with Koenen’s league-low average. Opposing returners have attempted to run back eight of his 20 punts and picked up an average of 12.9 yards – fifth most in the NFL.
Koenen’s other primary duty is handling kickoff responsibilities and the 10-year veteran has put 16 of 24 into or out of the end zone for touchbacks, an average of 66.7 percent that ranks him 12th amongst his peers. Tampa Bay’s coverage unit has defended eight kick returns. Its 20.5-yards-surrendered average is in the upper third of the league.
When the NFL pushed kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2011 to try and reduce high-speed collisions and concussions, touchbacks predictably increased as well. During Koenen’s first six professional seasons in Atlanta he averaged 17.7 touchbacks a year. He already has 16 heading into Sunday’s game with Baltimore. Koenen’s first year in Tampa Bay was 2011 and he averaged 45.3 touchbacks the past three years.
Since all 11 coverage players are starting five yards closer to returners, some teams may opt to not kick the ball out of end zones to tempt eager return men into taking shots from five-plus yards behind the goal line.
“There’s some different strategy that goes into the kickoff,” Koenen said. “It depends on the situation. It seems like other teams will layup kick – it’s just that you’re five yards farther down field so you can take a little bit more of a risk.
“But the more you can keep it out of their hands the better, so we definitely will take a touchback every time. You don’t want to play with fire more than you have to.”
The two bright spots on special teams through five games have been place kicker Patrick Murray and return man Solomon Patton.
In one of the more surprising early season moves, Tampa Bay displaced veteran Connor Barth with the unproven Murray and the discount decision has paid off so far. Murray’s 4 of 5 on field goal attempts and has slammed two home from 50 yards or longer. Last week’s 55 yarder in New Orleans broke his career best set a week prior in Pittsburgh – a 50-yard kick that was partially deflected at the line. Murray’s only miss came on a blocked attempt against St. Louis.
As for Patton, the rookie out of Florida is showing early signs of a promising career as an NFL returner. Patton’s ranked seventh in the league with an 11.7-yard punt return average (9 attempts for 105 yards) and 12th on kick returns, at 22.9 (14 attempts for 321 yards). His 11 kick returns of 20-plus yards are second to only Jacksonville’s Jordan Todman and his two punt returns of 20 yards or more make him one of 10 players to do so on multiple occasions.
The Bucs’ decision to go with Patton over recently resigned Eric Page, last year’s primary return man, has been a wash up to this point. Patton averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and 24.9 per kick return in 2013.
Just because one of the greatest returners in NFL history took one back on us we’re afraid to punt deep? More bad things happen for the return team then the punting team. Live in your hopes, not in your fears.
Koenen’s following his coach’s instructions. What’s he supposed to do, out kick his punt coverage? With all the issues facing the Bucs (backup Qb, piss poor running game, injured WR/TE who were supposed to be key players, swiss cheese defensive backfield/worthless safeties) we focus on the punter.
Thanks for the advice Morgan.
“We” being the collective fanbase. Sorry you took it as criticism of your writing. Visit fan message boards and joe buc fans are focusing on kicking when we have so many other issues on the team….
PR: Make up your minds – Is he doing what he is supposed to do or is it really a problem?
He used to have just as good hang time, but 5 yards deeper; I would remind him.
Why is it that no other punter seems to have these issues…no other punter seems to be worried about out kicking his coverage, or forcing fair catches at the expense of yards, or not kicking it too far, or too high, or too whatever….I think this guy thinks too much…just nail the ball as far as you can and aim for the sideline…problem solved.
It’s too early to draw firm conclusions, but too many roads – ignoring obvious needs on draft day, emphasizing potential (ie,hope) vs proven production in free agency, plus questionable game plans, game day personnel decisions (McCown being most obvious but not the only one), play calling and clock management – are leading back to suggest problems with our coaching staff and front office. Hopefully these are typical first year of a turnaround blues, but candidly it doesn’t feel like it to me.
Confusing and contradicting article. Not sure after reading if he is the problem or not. One thing for sure punter is least of our problems, but paying a kicker that much is stupid and I thought so before he even kicked his first kick for us. Special teams took a big step backwards this year and have been just dreadful. Not sure who is to blame, but ultimately Lovie is. Cut him and free some money and get and average punter then spend on some players or a coach that can actually cover and tackle on special teams. Lol
I knew he was following direction to kick the ball high and short out of fear of run backs. I don’t like the strategy.
Perhaps the coach knows the coverage team is flawed and he is trying to hide that defect to Koenen’s chagrin?
I believe you nailed it. This team has suspect PR coverage.
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