FAB 3. Anger Management In Tampa Bay
It’s taken awhile, but the Buccaneers finally have a star-studded lineup that is beginning to resemble Tampa Bay’s roster from the glory days.
Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Doug Martin, Cameron Brate, Ali Marpet and first-round pick O.J. Howard on offense.
Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Brent Grimes, Robert Ayers, Jr. and hopefully Vernon Hargreaves III and Noah Spence on defense.
The Bucs aren’t quite to the level of Mike Alstott, Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and John Lynch, but they are getting close to being a bona fide playoff team.
Yet for all of the established stars and up-and-comers on Tampa Bay’s 2017 roster, the player that has had the best and most consistent training camp and preseason is without a doubt punter Bryan Anger. The Bucs signed Anger, who was Jacksonville’s third-round pick in 2012, to a one-year deal worth $1.75 million last offseason.
While the acquisition of Grimes and Ayers captured the headlines last year, Anger might have actually been general manager Jason Licht’s best free agent signing. He averaged 45.9 yards per punt with a 42.7-yard net, downing 37 of his 70 punts inside the 20 with just five touchbacks.
That’s over half of his punts being downed inside the 20.
Anger has picked up where he left off from last season, averaging 42.1 yards per punt with a 39.3-yard net. With the starters in the game for the first three preseason contests, a whopping 10 of Anger’s 13 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line this preseason, including all seven of his punts against Cleveland in Saturday night’s 13-9 loss to the Browns.
“I think that is the most I’ve had,” Anger said. “I think I’ve had six downed inside the 20 before. The offense did a great job of driving down and obviously didn’t finish, but that’s where we step in. We had some short-field opportunities from the 38-yard line, 40-yard line, 45-yard line.
“It’s cool to see stats after the game, but you don’t think about it during the game. The situation presents itself and you have to go out and do your duty. The big focus the last couple of years is limited touchbacks. It’s trickier from the 50-yard line and back. I had trouble hitting 58-yard punts into the end zone. A lot of emphasis is limiting those longer balls and getting them to stay inside the 10-yard line.”
Not only does Anger do a great job of nailing punts inside the 20-yard line last year, but he teamed with gunners Josh Robinson, Russell Shepard and Ryan Smith to drop several punts inside the 5-yard line.
“He gives us a great chance of getting a turnover having the offense backed up that far near the end zone,” Smith said. “It gives their quarterback a harder time and it creates great field position for us. There are only so many plays you can run out of your own end zone. It really shrinks the playbook. It gives our defense a chance to get a stop or a turnover. This is the NFL. You don’t see many 95- or 99-yard drives. A lot of the NFL defenses are great enough to stop a drive that starts that far back. Going 80 yards against an NFL defense is hard, especially our defense. Going 99 yards is almost impossible. It’s great to have Bryan put us in a great position.”
Anger’s 54-yard punt made the Bears start at their own 2-yard line after Robinson tackled returner Eddie Royal for a loss of three yards. Three plays later, Ayers sacked Jay Cutler in the end zone for a safety in Tampa Bay’s 36-10 victory over Chicago.
With the Bucs trailing 14-10 at San Diego in the third quarter, Anger’s 54-yard punt was fair caught at the Chargers’ 8-yard line. On the next play, Philip Rivers was picked off by David, who returned it 15 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in a 28-21 road win.
“He’s got every punt you can think of,” Bucs kicker Nick Folk said. “Bryan is doing great. He’s got the big punts you need to flip the field. He’s got the touch punts from the 38-yard line where you down them near the goal line and every punt in between.
“If you can do that two times per game, teams are going to get frustrated coming out of their own end zone. You might get a safety out of it, or they might get a bad punt off and then your offense has a short field, or you might get a blocked punt. Our gunners are doing great. They take it seriously and they take pride in it. It’s fun to be a part of that.”
Anger also played a huge role in Tampa Bay’s 16-11 win over New Orleans on December 11. With the Bucs clinging to a five-point lead, Tampa Bay’s offense stalled and had to punt twice late in the fourth quarter. His 44-yard punt was caught by Smith, who borrowed a page out of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal video, as he leaned forward into the end zone with his toes outside the goal line and tossed the ball behind him to fullback Alan Cross, who downed the ball at the Saints’ 1-yard line.
The Saints only picked up eight yards in three plays and had to punt the ball back to the Bucs. But after Tampa Bay gained just 15 yards on six plays, Anger was called on to punt again, and dropped a 32-yard punt down to the 3-yard line where Robinson downed it. New Orleans traveled just 42 yards on six plays before Keith Tandy’s interception with less than a minute left sealed Tampa Bay’s victory.
Not only did Tampa Bay’s gunners help Anger down 37 punts inside the 20 last year, they helped limit return yardage. Only 24 of Anger’s 70 punts were returned last season, and for just 128 yards – by far the fewest amount allowed in his career.
“Last year Ryan Smith came in when Russell had to step up and play more receiver,” Anger said. “[Special teams coordinator] Nate [Kaczor] is doing a great job of training those young guys. Justin Evans is fast. Watching him go downfield, he’s hungry to make a play. Josh Robinson is obviously great, and we have a ton of special teams weapons. They take pride in what they do.”
Evans, the team’s second-round draft pick, is being groomed to be a gunner this year with Smith being pressed into starting duty at cornerback during the preseason due to Grimes’ injury.
“Bryan is a great punter,” Evans said. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen. He takes a lot of pride in it and our special teams coach also takes a lot of pride in that. As gunners, we take it very seriously. We play special teams here like we would play on offense or defense.
“I feel like anyone can do it when you have a punter who is punting so well. I have learned the role of gunner here. I played it a little bit in college, but whether I’m a starter or not on defense, I want to be a starting gunner because I feel like I can help my team.”
While he’s relished his time with the starting defense in Grimes’ absence, Smith told me he’s itching to get back to playing special teams.
“Seven punts inside the 20 from Bryan didn’t surprise me at all,” Smith said. “I keep telling him, ‘I can’t wait to get back out there. We’re going to do our thing like last year.’ When the ball is in the air I know I’m going to get to it or I know Josh is going to get to it. It’s great knowing what we’re going to get from our punter.
“We have some fast guys, man. People don’t even know how much talent we have on this team. Seeing Justin run down there [Saturday night], it wasn’t a big surprise. He’s an athlete. He’s going to show it whether it’s on special teams or defense.”
Licht wisely locked up Anger last December as a reward for a job well done. The 28-year old Anger was signed to a five-year, $17 million contract extension that included $4 million in guaranteed money in the form of his $1.5 million salary and a $2.5 million roster bonus this year. Anger’s salary climbs to $3 million per year in 2018 and ‘19, and then increases to $3.5 million in 2020 and ‘21.
Anger is playing at a Pro Bowl level and since he’s found his groove in Tampa Bay he’s gunning to make the Pro Bowl this year.
“For sure,” Anger said. “I’m trying to be No. 1 every year. I have the leg strength and the potential, and now we have the special teams. Nate is doing an awesome job getting guys that are hungry and they want to play on special teams. I didn’t always have that before (in Jacksonville) when you bring in guys on a rebuilding team. It’s tough. But here you have some awesome core special teams players here like Josh Robinson, Adarius Glanton, Ryan Smith and others. They are big-time special teamers. It’s awesome to have that support.”
While his seven punts inside the 20 against Cleveland may have wowed those watching Anger put on his punting clinic, it didn’t faze his head coach.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Koetter said. “Jason brought Bryan in here a year ago. Bryan was one of those players that just needed a change of scenery. He was a high draft pick and he has done nothing but perform for us.”
If he keeps it up, Anger will continue to help the defense by creating opportunities for safeties and defensive touchdowns, and aid the offense by creating shorter fields as opponents will have to continually punt from their own end zone when Anger’s punts are downed inside the 5-yard line.