TAMPA — Special teams play is what separates some good teams from being great, and in the Bucs case it’s been just one of the reasons the franchise has been stuck in its losing ways.
And that continues to be the case, even with this year’s retooled, Tom Brady-led team.
Yes, Brady’s two picks in the Bucs' 34-23, season-opening loss to the Saints hurt, but the Bucs' inability to execute on special teams constantly put the defense in poor field position, forcing it to defend a short field.
The Saints opened three drives inside Bucs territory and another five yards shy of midfield. Brady’s first interception accounted for one of those instances, but the other three were a result of special teams gaffes: a blocked field goal, poor punt coverage and a muffed kickoff return.
While the Bucs never had a starting field position better than their own 25-yard line, the Saints began nine of their 13 offensive drives beyond that mark.
It’s a lot easier to move your offense when there’s less field in front of you.
“When you look at the drive start, ours was the (Bucs) 18, and theirs was the (Saints) 42,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “That’s a huge, huge advantage. Special teams did have a big part of that — as did the turnovers. We have to do a better job of tackling on punt returns when we’re punting the ball.”
Every practice begins with special-teams work, so the Bucs have prepared for it. But e’xecution is another thing, and in an overall sloppy Week 1 performance, the special-teams mistakes stood out.
One of the Bucs' two field-goal attempts in the game — Ryan Succop’s 54-yard attempt from the middle of the field with 3:36 remaining in the second quarter — was blocked by Margus Hunt, who had just been promoted from the Saints' practice squad before the game.
The play developed slowly, and Hunt easily plowed through the right side of the Bucs' offensive line, parting Alex Cappa and Tristan Wirfs. He got so much penetration that it wasn’t a matter of getting a hand on the ball; he came away with a bruise on the inside of his right bicep. The Saints took over at their 45.
“It was very disappointing to get that field goal blocked,” Arians said. ,“Our operation time was a little slow. Again, we let penetration over the right guard and that’s very disappointing because you never expect that to happen.”
Then, with fourth and 13 at their own 23-yard line at the 8:06 mark of the third quarter, the Bucs netted just 22 yards on a punt, giving the Saints the ball at the Tampa Bay 45.
Bradley Pinion, who averaged 47.2 yards per punt Sunday, kicked a line drive that got to Saints returner Deonte Harris in a hurry. Bucs linebacker Quinton Bell overpursued and linebacker Jack Cichy missed a tackle, allowing Harris into Bucs territory with a 16-yard punt return.
“We were getting down there pretty good, but we were just missing tackles," Arians said. "They had a 14-yard average on returns and that. We have to do a better job of punting the ball and a better job of covering and tackling.”
The most head-scratching special-teams play happened late. The Saints were kicking off from midfield after Carlton Davis was hit with a 15-yard facemask penalty on Emmanuel Sanders' five-yard touchdown reception.
The Saints kicked short, and safety Mike Edwards retreated. As he caught the ball at the 17-yard line, he collided with punt returner Jaydon Mickens, jarring the ball loose. The Saints recovered at the 18.
Arians said Edwards was at fault on the play.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Arians said. “You never back up in that situation. Guys are out there for the first time, (but) you still don’t anticipate that happening when they’ve been coached not to. We have to get it corrected, that’s for sure.”
The Bucs' defense, far too used to playing on short fields during last year’s turnover-laden season, permitted only two field goals on those three drives.
“That’s just something that when we take the field, we take the field saying, ‘We’re going to get the ball back to the offense,’ no matter where we’re at on the field,” Bucs inside linebacker Lavonte David. “We don’t think about (where the opponent is).”
While place-kicking miscues have long headlined the Bucs' special-teams struggles, the team’s return game made Tampa Bay one of the worst overall special-teams units in the league from a statistical perspective.
The Bucs ranked 22nd in the league last year in field-goal percentage (77.14 percent), 28th in average kickoff-return yardage (19.8) and 29th in average punt-return yardage (5.2)
In Sunday’s opener, the Bucs netted zero yards in the return game. No kickoffs were returned, and Mickens made four fair catches on punts with no returns.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.