First, there was the punt that Karl Williams failed to catch. And then there was the Bucs punt returner that the Lions failed to catch.
Two similar plays had decidedly different results in Tampa Bay's 20-17 win Sunday at the Pontiac Silverdome.
Williams returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 10-point lead at the end of the third quarter.
But what made his fourth career punt return for a score even more spectacular was that it came one series after his failure to field a punt that led to the Lions' first touchdown.
"He's a special guy," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "He's been special through my time here and he's made some huge plays for us over the course of six years. This was another one today."
For Williams, the touchdown that gave Tampa Bay a 17-7 lead was pure redemption.
With the Bucs cruising, leading 10-0 with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter, Williams muffed a punt from John Jett that was recovered by the Lions' Brock Olivo at the Tampa Bay 26.
"I'll tell you what. We all talked about it after it happened. But when Karl fumbled that punt, we all walked out on that field and it was not the same defense that had been out there the whole game," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "You could see it."
Eight plays later, fullback Cory Schlesinger scored on a 1-yard run.
"It was disappointing on the fumble," Dungy said. "I think he was going to fair catch it and looked around to stay out of traffic and just misplayed the ball."
On the touchdown run, Williams eschewed a fair catch on a hanging 39-yard punt, sidestepped Schlesinger, then made cornerback Jimmy Wyrick and Jett miss on his path down the left sideline. He got one final block, on Lions linebacker Allen Aldridge by Bucs safety David Gibson, on his way to the third-longest punt return in team history.
"The touchdown was a great run," Dungy said. "He's had some big ones for us over the last five years, but that one was a pretty one and we got some good blocking."
"It was just one of those things," said Williams, who finished with 116 return yards. "I didn't really go back there saying I have to make a play. But that's something I always do. Any time I touch the ball, I'm going to try and make a play, whether I get a 10-yard return, a 15-yard return or a touchdown. And you just take what the coverage team gives you."
Williams admitted he took his eyes off the punt he muffed.
"I came really close to almost fair catching it," Williams said. "I took my last peek when the ball was coming down and I knew I would be able to make a clean catch. And if I got by (the first defender), I'd have returned it easy."
Williams' return for a touchdown bailed out the special teams, which had mixed results.
They botched a 22-yard field goal when long-snapper Sean McDermott skipped the ball past holder Mark Royals. Kicker Martin Gramatica fielded it, but his pass to Dave Moore in the end zone fell incomplete.
The Bucs were able to keep Lions Pro Bowl kick returner Desmond Howard in check. He averaged 19.8 yards on four kickoffs and 9.3 on four punt returns.
"That was huge," Dungy said. "They had done a great job getting field position with their special teams. (Special-teams coach) Joe (Marciano) emphasized (stopping Howard) all week and we had some extra guys up with our coverage unit. We went with seven offensive linemen to have more cover guys up."
And some of those players were able to help spring Williams.
"That's the way Karl is," Dungy said. "We've been together for six years now and Karl is one of those guys you wish you had 53 like him. He just does his job."
Bringing 'em back
Karl Williams' punt return for a touchdown was his fourth, and the seventh in franchise history:
Yds. Player Opp. Date Result
95 J. Green Gr. Bay 9-13-98 L, 23-15
88 K. Williams Chicago 12-22-96 W, 34-19
84 K. Williams Detroit Sunday W, 20-17
80 V. Turner Detroit 10-2-94 W, 24-14
73 K. Williams Buffalo 11-26-00 W, 31-17
61 K. Williams Chicago 12-21-97 W, 31-15
23 R. Barber Chicago 11-29-98 W, 31-17