Bucs' punt coverage faces challenge in Chiefs' Hill
The Bucs' punting unit -- punter Bryan Anger and the coverage team, led by gunners Josh Robinson and Russell Shepard -- has been one of the team's biggest strengths, ranking fifth in the NFL in net punting with an average of 44.3 yards, which would break the franchise record by four full yards.
Opponents are averaging just 5.0 yards per return, third-lowest in the NFL, but the Bucs will have a challenge this week in Chiefs rookie Tyreek Hill, who leads the NFL with 327 yards on punt return this season.
"We feel like we have two of the best gunners, one of the best tandems there is," coach Dirk Koetter said Wednesday. "We actually gave Josh Robinson the game ball for special teams for the Chicago game and it's pretty apropos because Hill, their return man is the top return guy in the AFC in punt returns. Dangerous both as a punt returner and a kick returner. Our entire punt team has been fantastic all year, the way DePo (Andrew DePaola) is snapping it, Bryan is kicking it, the way we're protecting it and our gunners cover it, but we're going to have to cover with everybody this week."
Robinson's play led directly to points for the Bucs on Sunday -- he tackled a kickoff returner at the 10-yard line just before halftime, setting up optimal field position for the Bucs to add a field goal before the half, then tackled punt returner Eddie Royal at the 2-yard line, setting up a safety for the Bucs defense three plays later.
"Unfortunately it wasn't a safety (for him) but it was a huge play and we ended up getting the safety a couple of plays later," said Robinson, a reserve defensive back who hasn't played on defense, focusing exclusively on special teams. "Bryan, he's been having an excellent year. Whether it's his hang time or location of the ball, it's been easy to cover for him."
The Bucs have been exceptionally good at pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line -- they have 21 punts downed inside the 20, as compared to just three touchbacks all season. The Chiefs are averaging 14.9 yards per return, second behind only the Redskins, and Robinson said the entire coverage unit has worked hard to have the success they've had this season.
"All the guys on the field take pride in the work they put out. We want to be good," Robinson said. "We know that flipping the field is a crucial part in every game, so it's what we're trying to accomplish when we're punting."
The Bucs should get Shepard back after two games sidelined with a hip injury, and Koetter said the Chiefs generally double-team opposing gunners, making it harder for them to get downfield quickly to limit the return. "I'm looking forward to the challenge," Robinson said.