Bucs gunners again forced rare turnover on special teams
Positions on special-teams units aren't as well known as "quarterback" and "linebacker," but the last two Bucs games have shown how much of a game-changing difference can come from gunners battling jammers in punt coverage.
In football parlance, the "gunners" are two players who line up wide like receivers on a punting team -- they're the only players allowed to cross the line of scrimmage before the punt, taking off with the hopes of minimizing the returner's ability to get up field. The receiving team will line up "jammers" -- and sometimes more than one -- to guard the gunner like a defensive back, trying to reroute him from a direct path to the returner.
Aggressive play by the gunners can limit or often eliminate the threat of an opposing punt return, forcing a fair catch or better still, downing a punt deep in the opponent's territory. The Bucs use two players as their primary gunners -- receiver Russell Shepard, their special-teams captain, and cornerback Josh Robinson, who hasn't played a single snap on defense but is a key player on coverage units.
In each of the last two games, opposing jammers have been so preoccupied by the Bucs gunners that they've literally run into their own returners, causing a muff -- when the ball is touched by the receiving team, making it a live ball, but never actually possessed. In both cases, the Bucs had players close enough to pounce on the loose ball to set the team up with a huge field-position advantage after a rare special-teams takeaway.
"They're nervous," Shepard explained of being able to run opponents into their own returners. "Me and Josh, we get out there and we create havoc. We do all types of things to get them off their heels. That's one of the No. 1 things when you're blocking for a punt returner: Don't get in his way. Give him 10 yards. When you have gunners that move around like we do and have a great corps like we do, it happens every now and then."
Against Carolina, the Bucs were only leading 3-0 midway through the second quarter when the Bucs punted the ball away. Carolina chose to double-team the left gunner, Robinson, leaving Shepard one-on-one with Panthers cornerback Teddy Williams. Shepard got Williams twisted enough that he ran directly into Panthers returner Ted Ginn, and Shepard jumped on the loose ball to give the Bucs the ball back.
Against San Francisco, Tampa Bay led only 17-14 and had gone three-and-out when Bryan Anger lined up to punt. The 49ers chose to double Shepard, leaving Robinson one-on-one against jammer Aaron Burbridge. Again, Robinson got Burbridge twisted enough running back in coverage that he ran directly into returner Jeremy Kerley -- the ball bounces off Burbridge's right arm and he, not the returner, is credited with the muff. Robinson is right there, but the ball bounces through his legs, and another special-teams standout, safety Keith Tandy, grabs the loose ball for the Bucs.
From a field-position standpoint, it is the same thing as a 50-yard pass play -- the Bucs offense had stalled at their 24, but now can set up shop at the 49ers' 36, so with only 17 yards of offense, the Bucs can come away with a Roberto Aguayo field goal and a 20-14 lead.