FAB 4. Bucs Special Teams Are Far From Special
Towards the end of last season’s dismal 5-11 campaign in Tampa Bay I wondered aloud if defensive line coach Jay Hayes was going to keep his job and if special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor would join him in looking for work elsewhere. Hayes got the boot after his unit only produced 20 of the Bucs’ league-low 22 sacks and was replaced by defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, who has injected some attitude and enthusiasm along Tampa Bay’s D-line this offseason.
But Kaczor somehow survived, despite the Bucs’ special teams units being far from special in 2017. To be fair, it’s tough to judge a special teams coordinator because that person is primarily responsible for six units – field goal/PAT and field goal/PAT block, punt coverage and punt return, and kickoff coverage and kickoff return. A team can have the best field goal kicker, but an awful return game and coverage units – or vice versa – and really skew the grade for a special teams coordinator.
Yet with two years on the job in Tampa Bay, Kaczor’s special teams haven’t really held up their share of the bargain when looking at it collectively. Granted, the field goal kicking has been awful, and that’s mostly on general manager Jason Licht.
Special teams coordinators typically have very little to do with NFL kickers. They generally let them do their thing and aren’t kicking instructors. Kaczor has been beholden to Licht’s ill-fated decision to draft rookie Roberto Aguayo in the second round and use him in 2016, and the signing of Nick Folk last year, who flamed out in Tampa Bay after making 6-of-11 field goals (54.5 percent) and just 7-of-9 of his extra points.
Perhaps more importantly, the Bucs have failed to field a return game that strikes fear into other teams. That also has Licht’s fingerprints on it as Tampa Bay hasn’t really gone out and drafted a player with prolific return ability, yet Kaczor doesn’t get off the hook that easy. Every offseason and during training camp, a host of players compete for the right to return kicks and punts and Kaczor is in charge of picking the right ones.
So let’s take a look at each phase of Kaczor’s special teams and see where the problem areas lie, and if there is any hope of a rebound in 2018.
Field Goals + PATs
The Buccaneers ranked 28th in the league in field goal percentage last year, connecting on just 74 percent of their kicks (25-of-34). Only Chicago (73 percent), Seattle (72 percent), the New York Giants (72 percent) and the Los Angeles Chargers (67) were worse. On kicks between 40-49 yards, Tampa Bay made just 60 percent (6-of-10) of those field goals, which was the third-worst percentage in the league.
While the Bucs missed far too many field goals last year, especially Folk, who whiffed on three kicks in a close loss against New England, which ultimately cost him his job, Tampa Bay didn’t have a kick blocked, so kudos to the blockers up front I suppose.
Rounding out the kicking stats, the Bucs made only 90 percent (28-of-31) of their extra points, which ranked 26th in the league. If you are looking for a silver lining, the protection up front was good, as Tampa Bay didn’t have an extra point blocked, which is notable for the silver lining crowd.
Gone are Folk and Patrick Murray, who stepped in halfway through the season and provided better consistency. In comes Chandler Catanzaro, who had two good seasons in Arizona in 2014 (87.9 percent) and 2015 (90.3 percent) before a down year in 2016 (75 percent). Catanzaro rebounded in New York, hitting on 83.3 percent of his field goals with the Jets.
He only has four missed field goals inside the 39-yard line in 66 career attempts from that range, which is a damn good 93.9 percent mark. Catanzaro has a powerful leg, too. He has connected on 7-of-13 field goals (53.8 percent) from 50 yards or more, including a long of 60 yards with Arizona and 57 yards last year with New York.
Will Gholston continued to lead the way in blocks for Tampa Bay. Gholston had a blocked field goal against Atlanta on Monday Night Football last year, and also had a blocked extra point. Ryan Smith also had a blocked extra point, the first of his NFL career.
Kickoff Coverage + Kickoff Return
The Bucs averaged 21.6 yards per kick return, which ranked 17th in the NFL, and that may seem encouraging despite the fact that Tampa Bay’s kick return unit didn’t scare anybody last year. But alas, the Bucs only had nine returns of 20 yards or more last year, which was tied for last in the league with Philadelphia.
Tampa Bay’s longest kickoff return last year was 50 yards. Quick, can you remember who had it and in what game it took place? It was Reedy in Week 3 at Minnesota. Don’t worry. I didn’t remember it, either, and had to look it up because it wound up being inconsequential.
Conversely, the Bucs really struggled to cover kicks. Tampa Bay was the third-worst unit in the league last year, allowing opponents to return kicks an average of 24.68 yards. The Bucs also surrendered two kickoff return touchdowns – one at Carolina in a game Tampa Bay lost by three points on Christmas Eve, and in the season finale against New Orleans. Saints rookie Alvin Kamara returned a kickoff 106 yards for a TD in that game, which marked the longest kick return of the season in 2017.
Linebacker Adarius Taylor (formerly Glanton) did score a touchdown at Miami on the game’s final play as the Dolphins fumbled a lateral in the end zone.
Punting + Punt Returns
The Bucs’ best special teams unit may be punt return. The Bucs tied for sixth in the league with a 9.6-yard average. Adam Humphries is clutch – with only one fumble – and he almost picks up an extra first down with each attempt. But Humphries is not a dynamic returner, which is why the team had Bernard Reedy in that role to begin the season. Before his release in November, Reedy had a 44-yard punt return against the Jets, but it was only Bucs’ punt return to go for more than 20 yards last year, which ranked second-to-last in the NFL in this category.
Watching some punt returns last year, I thought I was having a flashback to former Bucs return men Tim Brown and Ike Hilliard that often fair caught the ball and lacked a sense of urgency to get anything more than nine yards on any given return.
As for punting, Bryan Anger had a down year with a 43.9-yard average and a 39.5-yard net. Only six teams had a worse net average than Tampa Bay.
Anger had just five touchbacks, but only downed 24 punts inside the 20, which was the fourth fewest in the league. In 2016, Anger’s 45.93 average ranked 12th in the league, and his 37 punts downed inside the 20 ranked tied for third. As a result, Anger’s net average of 42.67 ranked fourth in the league.
The Bucs’ punt coverage units were among the best, allowing just 5.67 yards per return last year, which ranked seventh in the NFL. However, covering shorter punts is easier to do and usually produces fewer yards as a result. The longest punt return Tampa Bay surrendered was just 40 yards.
Tampa Bay did have a punt return for a touchdown, but it came in a different way as Isaiah Johnson scooped up Tommylee Lewis’ fumbled punt return for a 7-yard touchdown in the 2017 season finale win against New Orleans. That made up for a blocked punt that was returned by the Saints for a touchdown earlier in the season when linebacker Devante Bond whiffed on a block and allowed his man to get a free run at Anger.
Bond wound up leading the Bucs in special teams tackles with 10 (nine solo), so that missed block is forgivable. Safety Keith Tandy was second on the team with eight tackles, followed by wide receivers Freddie Martino and Chris Godwin with seven and six tackles, respectively.
Smith, who was a special teams demon as a rookie in 2016, had to play more defense due to injuries last year, which robbed the punt coverage unit of one of its top gunners. His return to special teams full-time in 2018 should pay dividends as Smith had two tackles and a forced fumble last year.
The big question is whether Josh Robinson, the team’s special teams captain, is worth the money. Robinson missed part of the year with a concussion and finished with just five tackles and a forced fumble. He’s scheduled to make $1.75 million as strictly a special teams role player as he does not contribute on defense.
Robinson’s worth isn’t the only question mark on Tampa Bay’s special teams. Can Catanzaro solidify the shaky kicking duties or will Trevor Moore unseat him in training camp? Will Anger and the punt coverage unit rebound? Will Reedy’s return help inject some big plays in the Bucs’ return game or will stagnant returns continue in Tampa Bay?
The answers to these questions will determine whether this is Kaczor’s last season as the Bucs special teams coordinator and will play a large role in Tampa Bay’s fate in 2018.