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Hard lesson learned about special teams' importance

First-half mistakes, the first on the opening kickoff, could have cost the Bucs the game.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 2000


FOXBORO, Mass. -- Joe Marciano walked out of Foxboro Stadium with a good example of how special teams can cost a team a victory. The Bucs' special teams coach was just glad his team didn't lose in the process of helping him come up with a new lesson plan for his unit.

"The good thing about this game is we won it and it stressed the importance of special teams and how it can help you lose the ballgame if you're not on top of details," Marciano said. "The best thing we can do from this is stress the importance of when you're not on your details and you don't run fast and cover, anybody back there can gash you."

Marciano said the defense saved his unit from becoming a scapegoat. The list of textbook errors the special teams made led to 10 Patriots points and almost was the difference in the game.

The errors began on the first play when Karl Williams fumbled the opening kickoff, and they didn't end until after Troy Brown returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Williams, who returned one kickoff in the preseason, was inserted into the role for this game because running back Aaron Stecker was inactive. Stecker was the team's best returner in the preseason, but Williams was active to return punts and serve as a fifth receiver.

Williams' kickoff return started well. Williams almost got to the 30-yard line, one of Marciano's primary kickoff return goals. But the Patriots' Larry Whigham jarred the ball loose, and Kato Serwanga recovered. The Patriots converted the turnover into a 3-0 lead.

The next mistake came on the Bucs' first punt. Brown broke several tackles and returned the ball down the right sideline 39 yards before punter Mark Royals knocked him out of bounds.

Royals suffered a cut on one ear and admittedly was a little woozy.

"I got dinged a little bit," he said. "A little foggy, but nothing serious."

Another example of special teams problems was Kevin Faulk's second-quarter return of Martin Gramatica's kickoff after the Bucs' first touchdown. Like Brown, Faulk broke a number of tackles for a 40-yard return that gave the Patriots the ball at their 46.

Only the Bucs' defensive domination kept those two returns from turning into scores. But Brown left nothing to chance with his second-quarter touchdown return. The Patriots split the Bucs' coverage, creating a gaping hole for Brown to go through after he fielded the ball at the New England 34. Brown broke to the right and outraced everyone.

"We've got good-enough guys on our team to go down there and cover," Marciano said. "We've got two choices: Either punt the ball out of bounds or we have to get different guys."

Rookies Nate Webster and David Gibson played on the coverage units, but Marciano said he would not single out a player. He said the unit as a whole did not come out with enough emotion at the beginning of the game. Head coach Tony Dungy echoed that sentiment.

"We have some young guys playing on special teams that have to understand the intensity of things during the regular season," Dungy said. "We did pretty well in the preseason, but (New England) blocked and ran well today."

After Brown's touchdown punt return, the unit played better. One punt was downed at the 8 by long snapper Morris Unutoa. Brown was forced to fair catch three punts, and on two he returned, he picked up a total of 13 yards.

Also, Faulk was limited on two kick returns. He was tackled at his 25 on each. "The guys picked it up a little bit," Marciano said. "They got slapped in the face a little bit. Are you going to cry, or are you going to fight back? They got knocked out in the first half."

The coverage units had a successful preseason, including a touchdown on a forced fumble in the finale against Kansas City.

"But that's how it is in the NFL," Marciano said. "My point is, preseason doesn't mean anything. I was telling the team that (Saturday) night."

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