TAMPA —- The Bucs' punting unit — P 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 entering Thursday with an average of 44.3 yards, which would break the franchise record by 4 yards.
Opponents are averaging just 5.0 yards per return, which was third lowest in the NFL, but the Bucs will have a challenge this week in Chiefs rookie Tyreek Hill, who led the NFL with 327 yards on punt returns.
"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 (Sunday), and it's pretty apropos because Hill … 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 (Andrew DePaola) is snapping it, Bryan is kicking it, the way we're protecting it and our gunners cover it."
Robinson's play Sunday led directly to points for the Bucs in their 36-10 win. He tackled a kickoff returner at the Bears' 10-yard line just before halftime, setting up optimal field position for the Bucs to add a field goal, then tackled punt returner Eddie Royal at the 2, setting up a safety.
"It was a huge play," 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."
THIS AND THAT: The Bucs upgraded C Joe Hawley (knee) to full participation in Thursday's practice. TE Luke Stocker (ankle) was back and limited after missing Wednesday's practice. G Kevin Pamphile participated in full for the second straight day but remains in the NFL's concussion protocol, as he has been for two weeks. … DE Channing Ward, who made headlines by making the Bucs' roster in September as an undrafted rookie out of Ole Miss, is back in the fold, signed to the practice squad after clearing waivers. Ward, who started one game and had five tackles in limited action, was waived Wednesday to make room for DT Sealver Siliga, claimed off waivers from the Seahawks. To make room for Ward on the practice squad, the Bucs released DT Rodney Coe.