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Special teams too noticeable

By ROGER MILLS and DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2002


NEW ORLEANS -- Usually when little attention is paid to special teams, it means the job is getting done.

Of course, the opposite also can be true, as it was Sunday night in a 23-20 loss to the Saints.

With the exception of a touchdown-saving tackle by Todd Yoder and a 51-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica, Tampa Bay's special-teams unit didn't have its best day.

"It killed us; it killed us tonight," coach Jon Gruden said. "There were penalties and they magnified the situation and we started drives at the 12 and at the 15 (and farther back)."

Gramatica clanged a 42-yarder off the post just before the end of the first half.

In an 11-play sequence early in the third quarter, special-teams blunders proved costly.

After Jake Reed gave the Saints a 13-9 lead with a 3-yard touchdown reception, returner Aaron Stecker fumbled the kickoff to give the Saints the ball on the Bucs 30.

Tampa Bay got the ball back on the next play when Al Singleton sacked Aaron Brooks and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Greg Spires at the 33.

But the Bucs were forced to punt, and Michael Lewis scampered 56 yards to set up the Saints' second touchdown of the quarter, a 14-yard reception by Joe Horn three plays later.

"The beer man did it to us," Bucs cornerback Dwight Smith said, referring to Lewis' former career. "How can we let the beer man do it to us?"

DEUCE IS LOOSE: With so much at stake, Saints running back Deuce McAllister wasn't about to miss the game. McAllister, who sat out Nov. 24 against Cleveland with an ankle sprain, returned to the starting lineup with a bang.

McAllister entered with 950 yards, tops in the NFC. The Saints went to McAllister on their first offensive play, and he had 10 carries for 46 yards in the first half, including a 6-yard touchdown that gave the Saints a 6-2 lead.

He finished with a punishing 99 yards on 27 carries.

* * *

STANDING HIS GROUND: It seems Warren Sapp is going to have to continue to explain what happened and how he felt about his hit on Packers offensive lineman Chad Clifton. On ESPN's Sunday Conversation, which aired before the game, he again had to defend himself in his confrontation with Packers coach Mike Sherman.

Sapp, who asserted that he never has been considered a dirty player, said he did nothing illegal and challenged Sherman's credentials.

"Don't talk to me unless you've been in this league," Sapp said.

Sapp said he felt violated by Sherman's decision to come to the Bucs sideline for a confrontation. As for the threats that the Packers may go after Sapp's knees when next they meet?

"Come get some," Sapp said. "I'm easily found."

McFARLAND SITS: Defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who had missed three games with a fractured right forearm, sat out. McFarland, a native of Winnsboro, La., had targeted this game for his return and was back at practice Wednesday. Gruden said he wanted McFarland to play but opted to be cautious.

UPON FURTHER REVIEW: The Bucs, leading 9-6 at the time, had an apparent touchdown on a fumble recovery in the second quarter, but officials ruled McAllister was down before the ball came loose. Television replays appeared to show otherwise, but the play wasn't reviewable because officials had blown it dead.

BUCS BITS: Tampa Bay's offense struggled on third down early, going 0-for-4 until quarterback Brad Johnson connected with receiver Keenan McCardell on a 26-yard reception. The Bucs ended that drive with 44-yard touchdown reception by Mike Alstott. ... Bucs left tackle Roman Oben gave up a sack to rookie defensive end Charles Grant on the Bucs' fifth play from scrimmage. Johnson fumbled the ball, which was recovered by linebacker Charlie Clemons on the Bucs 29. ... The Saints played in throwback uniforms. The Bucs were given that option but declined. Bucs coaches, however, paid tribute to team history by wearing sweat shirts carrying a small emblem that read, "1976 Established."

INJURIES: Safety Dexter Jackson bruised a thigh late in the second quarter but stayed in. Stecker injured his right leg and will be re-evaluated today.

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