The Tampa Bay Buccaneers entered their 2005 training camp without their top three special teams tacklers from a year ago. Replacing linebacker Keith Burns, safety John Howell and cornerback Corey Ivy was a big enough challenge heading into this season, but that challenge became even bigger on Saturday night when the Bucs lost LB Jeff Gooch to injury.

Gooch, who was projected to start at the strongside linebacker position this season, is sidelined indefinitely with a severe calf strain. That means the Bucs have sustained a significant blow on both defense and special teams, where Gooch has recorded a whopping 164 tackles, including 14 in ’04.

“That’s definitely something we’re thinking about,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said when asked how the loss of Gooch would impact Tampa Bay’s special teams cover units.

Ryan Nece, who has recorded 36 special teams takedowns since entering the league in ’02 as an undrafted free agent, will start in Gooch’s place.

While Tampa Bay still plans on having Nece, a special teams captain, contribute on special teams, his playing time there could be limited while Gooch is out.

“Let’s be honest – when it’s a 100-degree heat index, Ryan may not be as good if he runs a six- or seven-play defensive sequence and then goes out on the field to cover kicks and punts,” said Gruden.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the possibility of Gooch and/or Nece not playing on special teams for a while, the Bucs have turned to running back Michael Pittman, who they believe can fill the void left on both special teams coverage units.

“Michael Pittman is a guy that’s going to start playing on special teams when the regular season starts,” said Gruden.

Pittman, who is in his eighth NFL season, has been Tampa Bay’s starting tailback for the past three seasons. Despite rushing for a career-high 926 yards (4.2 avg.) and seven touchdowns last season, Pittman lost his starting job to Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.

While he’ll still have a role on offense in Gruden’s running-back-by-committee approach, Pittman recently went to the coaching staff and asked if there was anything he could do to help contribute more, and the coaching staff responded by asking him to play on special teams.

Pittman’s answer, of course, was yes.

“I did it back in ’98 and ’99 and had a good time doing it,” Pittman said of playing on special teams. “This is just another opportunity for me to get on the field. Right now, Cadillac is our starting running back and he’s going to be playing a lot. I’ll still be playing a lot on offense, but at the same time I’m going to be doing more. They asked me if I wanted to play special teams, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ I’ll be covering kickoffs and punts. Whatever. I just want to be on the field to help the team win. I’m pretty excited about it.”

Some players, particularly veterans, dread playing on special teams, but Pittman has embraced the role, and the opportunity to get on the field more.

“I’m just happy that I’m in the NFL,” said Pittman. “A lot of guys don’t even get a shot to be here. I got drafted and I’m excited to be here. My main focus is to help this team win. It’s not really about individual stats. It’s about helping your team win any way you can. I think I can help our team win by playing special teams.”

Tampa Bay didn’t just ask anybody to help make an impact on special teams. Pittman’s credentials from earlier in his NFL career suggest he’s more than qualified for the job.

During the ’98 season, which was his rookie campaign, Pittman established himself as one of Arizona’s top special teams players by notching 17 takedowns.

Over the past several seasons, Pittman has not played special teams. Instead, he’s been one of Tampa Bay’s most productive offensive players. And while he still plans to get his fair share of touches on offense, Pittman likes the idea of getting on the playing field more often, and more importantly, tackling the opposition on special teams.

“I talked with [special teams coach Richard] Bisaccia about how I used to play on special teams,” said Pittman. “My special teams coach at that time (when I played in Arizona) was Al Everest, and he’s back out in New Orleans now. He told Coach Bisaccia how good I was on special teams. It’s something I enjoy doing. I’m a physical guy. I’ll always try to be the first one down on kickoff. I just love contact. Instead of sitting on the sideline to wait for my turn to go in on offense, I’d rather be helping the team in other ways, and one of the ways is on special teams.”

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