TAMPA — For four games they have dutifully lined up and sped down the field, knowing each time it was likely the Bucs' kickoff would result in a touchback.
Only five times in those four games did an opponent attempt to bring out a kickoff, getting past the 22-yard line just once, to the 31.
But with Kyle Brindza released Monday and Connor Barth taking over kickoffs, there's a greater chance Sunday against the Jaguars that Barth won't kick the ball through the end zone and Jacksonville will bring it out. The players on the Bucs' kickoff coverage unit say they won't change their approach.
"A lot of guys on kickoff (duty) joke that we can't get our stats because we're always kicking it out the back of the end zone," safety Keith Tandy said. "We don't let it change our mentality. We're always finishing through the end zone every play."
To keep that urgency even if a return was unlikely, special teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea added an incentive to his weekly film review: production points to the first Bucs player to cross the goal line, even on a touchback.
"We treat it like the Navy SEALS," O'Dea said of the unit's preparedness for returns. "Those guys don't train all year and then sit at home. They want to go where the action is. You try to coach that, to cultivate that attitude with those guys."
So now, after weeks of the Bucs being content to have opponents starting drives on their 20-yard line, the coverage unit has a renewed challenge: pin them deeper.
"I've never heard a coach say they'll take a touchback every time," said linebacker Orie Lemon, re-signed this week specifically to help the coverage units. "I want them to bring it out."
O'Dea said a touchback is never expected by a coverage team, no matter who's kicking: "If you prepare the guys for touchbacks, you're preparing them to fail. It has to be the same intensity every time."
To a casual fan, kickoff coverage looks like 10 players around the kicker running downfield as fast as possible. But multiple alignments and strategies are in play, depending on the opponent and the path of the return.
"There's a lot more than people realize," said Tandy, a leader on the unit, especially while captain Russell Shepard is out with a hamstring injury.
Said safety D.J. Swearinger: "If (opponents) so happen to bring it out, it's their problem."
Player positions are numbered from the middle of the formation: left of the kicker is L1, next out is L2, with R1 through R5 on the other side. The fastest players aren't necessarily on the outside. Different alignments are used to throw off the return unit.
"Some guys have different responsibilities," O'Dea said. "It's multiple for a reason. If (opponents) think they have us figured out, we can pull the trigger and pull something else out."
Jacksonville has had an undrafted rookie returning kickoffs, backup running back Corey Grant. He hasn't broken a big return but had a 90-yard touchdown in 2013 while he was at Auburn in a win against Tennessee.
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Barth hasn't kicked off since 2010, when kickoffs were from the 30-yard line, not today's 35. In 78 kickoffs from the longer distance, he had only one touchback, and the Bucs gave up a 102-yard touchdown on a kickoff return by the Falcons that season.
The Bucs have confidence in their kickoff coverage, where the goal isn't just holding opponents inside their 20 but creating a turnover, either by forcing a fumble or being downfield fast enough to recover a muff if the ball comes loose.
"We haven't had to cover an awful lot, and you never know when you might have to," said coach Lovie Smith, who has former starters such as linebacker Bruce Carter and cornerback Alterraun Verner on coverage duty. "If we do, we feel good about our core group of special teams guys. We feel like we've improved the athletic ability, the athletes that we have on it."
There's a fearlessness in running full speed at someone ultimately running full speed back at you, but O'Dea compared the coordinated attack to something far less physical.
"It's synchronized swimming," O'Dea said. "Everybody has to be at the right place at the right time. You can't have one guy playing his own thing, because if you do, there are going to be seams. It's about 11. If they're bringing it out, you need everybody."
Contact Greg Auman at email@example.com and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.