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Bucs seek smaller returns on effort

Bill Schroeder, Glyn Milburn, David Palmer.

In the cavalcade of stars that is the NFL, these players hardly shine. Yet for Bucs special teams coach Joe Marciano, the they are the difference between a glowing midseason report and an average grade for his unit.

Schroeder had a 34-yard punt return in the Packers' 21-16 victory, and punter Tommy Barnhardt broke his collarbone making a touchdown-saving tackle on the play.

Milburn brought back a punt 40 yards for Detroit to set up a field goal in the Lions' 27-9 victory.

Palmer broke loose for a 57-yard punt return that set up the Vikings' touchdown in a 10-6 victory Sunday.

Field position is so critical for the Bucs' ball-control offense that the team can't afford big plays on special teams, even if the defense stops the opposition from scoring. In the first five games, there were no big returns, and the Bucs were undefeated.

But . . .

"In the three losses, we gave up a big return to Green Bay, a big return to Detroit and a big return to Minnesota," Marciano said. "There's a direct correlation.

"There's only one thing that I told them: Eliminate the big play. Eliminate (the opposition) getting field position. We play good defense. Why give them a 50-yard play? Make them earn it."

At the midway point, Marciano is not raving about the performance of the special teams but neither is he beating up a crew of players he says is giving its all.

"I'm not going to scream at them anymore," Marciano said.

There are positives and negatives in the Bucs' special teams performance. The average drive start for Tampa Bay's opponents on kickoffs is 21.7, second-best in the NFC behind Dallas, and the team is eighth in the league in kick-return average. Placekicker Michael Husted is second in the league in touchbacks with 16.

On the negative side, Tampa Bay is below average in punt returns, kickoff returns and punt coverage, and Husted has missed three extra points in the past four games.

One of Marciano's primary concerns is the punt coverage unit. Last year the Bucs had one of the league's best, limiting opponents to an average of 5.8 yards. This year the average has doubled to 11.7.

The key is to have everyone, including the punter, operate as one unit.

"You've got to have some discipline," Marciano said. "You can't just go out there and have everybody doing their own thing. You have to be coordinated together like a defense. You've got to have a little kamikaze attitude, but you've got to have a team approach, too."

Missing from the punt coverage team are three key members from last season: Demetrius DuBose, Lonnie Marts and Derrick Brooks. DuBose and Marts were free agents, and Brooks has played on the punt coverage team only a few times this season. First-year players Greg Bellisari, Shelton Quarles and Al Singleton have stepped in, and it has been a learning process for them.

"You play special teams in high school, you play special teams in college, but when you get to this level, special teams is like a whole other ballgame," Bellisari said. "One, the level of athletes, and the depth and the complexity of it, is much more than we've seen probably all of our lives.

"It is kind of new for me. I'm learning, I'm trying to get better every week, and I'm definitely taking my lumps, but I'm trying to get better every week."

The Bucs' punt return and kickoff return teams are 22nd and 28th in the league, respectively, but Marciano hopes to get a pop from rookies Reidel Anthony and Warrick Dunn, who will begin to supplant Karl Williams, the Bucs' primary return man.

Williams has handled the majority of returns, averaging 7.4 yards on punts and 17.5 yards on kickoffs.

Anthony had two kickoff returns for a total of 42 yards against Minnesota. He has returned five kicks for an average of 29 yards. Dunn has averaged 23.8 yards on five kick returns and 10.5 yards on two punt returns.

"Karl did a good job at the end of last season," Marciano said. "It was a combination of Karl doing a good job and the blocking doing a good job as the year went on.

"We didn't get things going until halfway through the season last year. Overall, I've been disappointed because we haven't gotten it started this year."

Husted's failed extra-point attempts also have been disappointing, but Marciano and coach Tony Dungy remain confident the veteran can return to form at Indianapolis and Atlanta. In domed stadiums, Husted has hit 16 of 20 field-goal attempts from 49 yards or less.

NOTE: FB Kantroy Barber, a second-year veteran from West Virginia, went through a tryout with the Bucs. Barber, 6 feet 1 and 243 pounds, was with the Panthers until he was waived Oct.

16. He started the preseason with New England.

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