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Return from nowhere

Bucs tracking 'anonymous' return men

Special-teams unit wants to make sure a Raider does not become known for returning a kickoff for a TD in the Super Bowl.

[Times photo:Bill Serne]
Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips tries to bring down the Eagles' Brian Mitchell after a 70-yard kickoff return during the NFC Championship Game. Tampa Bay held Philadelphia to 19 yards on the final four kickoffs.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 26, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- You probably haven't heard of Marcus Knight.

In terms of striking fear in opposing teams and their fans, he is probably no more intimidating than Fulton Walker or Andre Coleman. He's nearly anonymous, even for NFL fans, as unknown as Stanford Jennings or Ron Dixon.

All those others have little to show for their NFL careers except they returned kickoffs for touchdowns in Super Bowls. And for that reason, Richard Bisaccia knows exactly who Knight is.

"He does a heck of a job of returning kicks," the Bucs special-teams coach said. "Our focus is always on whoever the return man is, and doing our job with that is absolutely critical this week."

The focus was on the Eagles' Brian Mitchell Jan. 19, and Tampa Bay still gave up two big runbacks in the first quarter, including a 70-yard return that set up Philadelphia's only touchdown in the NFC title game. And while Knight isn't the all-time return yardage leader, as Mitchell is, the truly dangerous thing is that the Super Bowl -- lately, at least -- is a magnet for kickoffs returned for touchdowns.

It did not happen during the first 16 Super Bowls, but there have been four in the past six, including back-to-back kickoffs for touchdowns in Tampa two years ago. During that span, a Super Bowl kickoff-return touchdown is 10 times more likely than in the NFL this season, where there was one for every 15 games played.

The Bucs have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in their 27-year, 444-game history, and that statistic has return specialist Aaron Stecker as focused on preventing a big touchdown as scoring one.

"They don't have a big-name guy, but every time their guy's back there, he's dangerous," Stecker said. "And I know they're over there saying I'm not a big-name guy, and I know what I'm capable of. In the Super Bowl, you can't take anyone lightly."

Knight, who had three catches as a receiver, averaged 24.3 yards on kickoff returns this season, 12th best in the league among players with 20 or more returns. He expects the Bucs' best, especially after their early breakdowns against Mitchell.

"They're going to come at me with everything they have," said Knight, a second-year receiver from Michigan. "They have nothing to lose. My confidence has never been lacking though. It wasn't lacking against the Jets, who had the best special-teams players in the NFL. I have faith in my teammates, so I don't worry about anyone we face."

Only two teams sent their average kickoff deeper than the Bucs this season, but the challenge is containing the returns. Opposing teams averaged 21.8 yards, 17th in the league. Mitchell had 113 yards on his first two returns, but the Eagles managed 19 on their next four kickoffs. The difference was a shift to low, bouncing squib kicks and better all-around coverage.

"We just put the ball on the ground, used the turf to our advantage and bounced it around a little bit and tried to get other guys returning the ball," Bisaccia said. "On the first two, we broke down on containing our lanes. We got out of our lanes on their first ones, did a poor job there, but they settled down and ended up doing a great job."

The Bucs will need a strong game on punt return coverage as well. Phillip Buchanon and Terry Kirby, both on injured reserve, returned punts for touchdowns against the Titans this season, and veteran Tim Brown has more than 300 career punt returns.

That puts pressure on Bucs punter Tom Tupa, who had a 6-yard punt into the wind against Philadelphia but averaged 41 on his other six attempts. Bisaccia said pinning the Raiders deep in their territory is a priority.

"We have to do a great job with field position," he said. "We need to control that, so our offense doesn't have to march all the way down the field and theirs does."

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Back to the Super Bowl XXXVII
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