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Special teams shine for Eagles

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- Bucs coach Jon Gruden often refers to special teams play as the area of hidden yardage. But Sunday against the Eagles there was nothing hidden about it.

PHILADELPHIA -- Bucs coach Jon Gruden often refers to special teams play as the area of hidden yardage. But Sunday against the Eagles there was nothing hidden about it.

Eagles returner Brian Mitchell proved why he is considered one of the most dangerous returners, on punts and kickoffs, in the league.

Mitchell had five punt returns for 61 yards and three kickoff returns for 83.

"That game, to me, felt more like a field position game than any other game that I have ever played, and we were letting them up to the 30-yard line, 40-yard line and punt us deep," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We were losing the field position battle, and Brian Mitchell killed us.

"He's a Hall of Fame returner and he proved it tonight. But he's not Superman and we have to be able to tackle him, and we didn't do that."

One of Mitchell's biggest plays came late in the second quarter on a Bucs punt from their 29. Mitchell's 29-yard return gave the Eagles the ball at the Bucs 45. Philadelphia scored two plays later on a 42-yard pass from Donovan McNabb to Todd Pinkston.

"We got hurt on special teams," Gruden said. "Brian Mitchell did it to us like he's done it to a lot of people in football. He still is a great return man and changed field position dramatically."

How unsettled were things for the special teams unit? Trailing 20-10, Pro Bowl kicker Martin Gramatica missed a 29-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 59 seconds left.

"It was a good snap, a good hold, everything, I just missed it," Gramatica said.

* * *

SPECIAL FLAGS: The Bucs return team drew penalties that erased solid punts by Tom Tupa. Cornerback Corey Ivy and rookie linebacker Ryan Nece were each penalized 10 yards for holding.

"Penalties happen and we just have to rebound for them, we have to learn from out," Ivy said. "We're still, right now, not where we want to be as far as being a complete special teams unit. We just have to go out each and every week and practice and continue to work hard and transfer it to the game field."

JOLTING JOE: Receiver Joe Jurevicius is making a strong claim for more playing time. Jurevicius had three catches for 35 yards, including first-down receptions of 14 and 13.

"It's all I'm ever asked for and I think that I'm making the most of my opportunities," he said. "I'm trying to bring a cockiness and an attitude to the field for our offense. I'm going to do my part. But we didn't do enough today to get a win."

LUCKY PENALTY: In his two-year pro career, right tackle Kenyatta Walker has had a few bad penalties, but a false start with 4:07 left at the Eagles 6 was a good thing. On the same play, running back Michael Pittman fumbled and the Eagles recovered at the 1-yard line.

Had Walker not drawn the penalty before the snap, the Eagles would have had possession, burying any hope for the Bucs.

"I'm screaming there telling them it wasn't, but it worked out," Walker said.

Despite having the ball first and goal at the 5, the Bucs could not score.

"We've got to score on that," Jurevicius said. "That's a test. We're down by 10 and we're that close, we need to score. The whole game could've changed right there. No offense to the field-goal unit but we don't need a field goal there, we need a touchdown."

SNAPPING DEBUT: After last week's struggles with the snapping, the Bucs were happy with the debut of former South Florida snapper Ryan Benjamin. Benjamin, signed on Monday after the Bucs released Morris Unutoa, played in his second NFL game Sunday and made no mistakes.

"Things went well more or less, but I would have preferred the win," said Benjamin, who played at River Ridge. "I was anxious at the start, you know, to get out there, but once I got out there I was ready to go. I just felt blessed for the chance to be out there."

PASS PROTECTION: Entering Sunday, the offensive line had surrendered nine sacks, an improvement from the 27 it gave up through the first six games last season. Things didn't go quite as well against the Eagles. Quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked five times and backup Rob Johnson once.

"We really didn't get it going today," guard Cosey Coleman said. "Earlier on, things were not clicking but it's a football game and that means it's 60 minutes. You have to finish. Now, at the end we still had a shot. It wasn't pretty."

The hits Brad Johnson sustained took their toll. He eventually left with bruised ribs.

"He did take some (hits) and we have to (accept responsibility)," Coleman said. "At halftime coach told us if we were going to win, we're going to have to step it up and protect Brad, and we just didn't get it done."

OH BROTHER: Cardinals kicker Bill Gramatica, Martin's younger brother, missed a 51-yard field goal late in regulation but kicked a 40-yarder in overtime to lift the Cardinals over the Cowboys, making him 3-of-6.

INJURY REPORT: Johnson suffered bruised left ribs and was replaced in the fourth. He is day-to-day. Receiver Keenan McCardell bruised his left upper back, but it doesn't appear serious.

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