Bucs 2016 season: Looking back on special teams
Lots to look back on as we review the Bucs' 2016 season, and we'll start on special teams, which was home to some of Tampa Bay's most effective units -- Bryan Anger's record-setting season with help from an outstanding coverage unit -- and most frustrating, with rookie Roberto Aguayo and the Bucs finishing last in the NFL in field-goal percentage.
I'll start with two special-teamers who made unsung plays in Sunday's win -- first, linebacker Adarius Glanton, who stepped in as emergency long-snapper when Andrew DePaola suffered a significant knee injury, and linebacker Cameron Lynch, who recovered Carolina's onsides kick to seal the Bucs' win.
We wrote about Glanton on Sunday, and after all sorts of research, we can report that he led the Bucs this season with 308 snaps on special teams, as a regular on the punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return units. Josh Robinson, who led the Bucs with 12 special-teams tackles, was just behind with 303 snaps on special teams. Lynch didn't join the Bucs until Week 5, but from that point on, he led the team in special-teams snaps, finishing with 225.
So here are a bunch of special-teams notes after charting how many plays every player played along 16 games this season:
THAT ONSIDES KICK: Always cool to see what 11 guys line up on the "hands team" -- Mike Evans had a helmet on at one point, but wasn't on the field. The Bucs' 11: Lynch, Robinson and Glanton, S Keith Tandy and Bradley McDougald, WR Russell Shepard and Adam Humphries, TE Alan Cross and Brandon Myers, RB Jacquizz Rodgers and CB Vernon Hargreaves. Lynch tried to leap over the kick, nicked it and quickly jumped on the loose ball.
EVERYBODY IN: The Bucs used 58 different players on special teams in 2016 -- the only players who don't get at least some work on special teams are the quarterbacks and the top offensive stars like Mike Evans, Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Vincent Jackson. It's literally everyone else on the team in some form or another.
IRON MAN: We'll have a separate post soon on Ali Marpet -- he and Donovan Smith played every offensive snap this season -- but it's worth noting that the offensive line also mans the extra point and field goal team, and Marpet was the only one in on every one this season, 65 in all. The Bucs actually took Donovan Smith off the extra point team after Week 1, but he came back in Week 9 when Kevin Pamphile was hurt and stayed the rest of the way. Gosder Cherilus was in on 56, Pamphile 54, Demar Dotson 45, Donovan Smith 41, Evan Smith 40 and rookie Caleb Benenoch 22. Leonard Wester and Ben Gottschalk got in on one each.
LARGER ROLES: The leaders of the special teams are Tandy and Shepard, so it was interesting to see both step away from their usual roles when they were pressed into bigger roles on defense and offense. When Chris Conte was hurt, Tandy stepped in as a starter for the last five games, and that limited him to just 37 special-teams snaps in those games. Shepard became a full-time receiver down the stretch, so he played just four snaps in the last five games, with Ryan Smith taking over as a gunner on punt coverage and Freddie Martino stepping up to take on some of his roles as well.
DEFENSE AND MORE: With a few exceptions, the Bucs basically use their starting defense on opponents' field goals and extra points. Even Gerald McCoy was in on 58 plays that way -- the only real exemption was Brent Grimes, who was on that unit for the first nine games, then off for the final seven, perhaps just to reduce potential injury. Curiously, the Bucs had Noah Spence play 13 snaps on special teams in the season opener, and as his role increased on defense, he played a total of eight special-teams snaps over the rest of the season.
ROOKIES ACTIVE: Despite playing nearly every down on defense, Vernon Hargreaves played 76 snaps on special teams, trailing only McDougald among defensive players who stayed as a defensive starter all year. Defensive back Ryan Smith had 231 snaps on special teams, fourth-most on the team, running back Peyton Barber played 160 (only two during the four-game stretch where he had a key role on offense) and tight end Alan Cross was busy with 132 snaps on special teams, this after only 29 in the first half of the season. There were veterans who played consistent roles on special teams as well -- Alterraun Verner played 184 snaps, Brandon Myers played 180.
SPECIALISTS: Looking at the snap counts for specialists, DePaola and punter Bryan Anger are almost always on the field for the exact same number of snaps -- the lone exception came when Anger had free kicks after safeties in the Seahawks and Saints games.
Aguayo handled kickoffs -- it's worth noting that his touchback percentage was 64 percent, tied for 8th-best in the NFL, and up from the Bucs being at 53 percent and 17th in the NFL. Again, that can point to a change in philosophy as much as a stronger leg. When opponents brought kickoffs out, they averaged 23.3 yards per kickoff return, so the Bucs were seventh-worst in the NFL there, but they didn't allow a kickoff return longer than 44 yards -- only six teams had their longs shorter than that.
We've talked about punt coverage -- the Bucs held opponents to 5.2 yards per return, fourth-best in the NFL, with a season long of 20; again, only six teams had an opposing long return shorter than that.
RETURNS: The Bucs finished last in kickoff returns, averaging just 14.6 yards per return, with a season long of just 26 yards -- a touchback, remember, is worth 25, so there was nearly zero upside in the Bucs bringing a kick out of the end zone all season. Rookie Ryan Smith lost the job after averaging 16.9 yards per return, but the Bucs averaged only 12.5 when other people tried -- Josh Huff averaged 12.0 and Humphries 11.8.
On punt returns, the Bucs were better, if conservative in how often they tried to return punts -- Humphries was solid, and the Bucs ranked 12th in the league by averaging 9.2 yards per return. Their ratio of returns to fair catches was 1.32 -- 10 teams had lower ratios, but others were wildly higher. Kansas City (with rookie phenom Tyreek Hill) had five returns for every one fair catch, and five teams had a ratio of 2.5 or higher.