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Special teams get back in the saddle

By JAMAL THALJI and ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 11, 2000


TAMPA -- A week after giving up a fumble and a touchdown at New England, Tampa Bay's special teams unit cleaned up its act against the Bears on Sunday.

Chicago's Glyn Milburn averaged 7.6 yards on three punt returns and 23.7 on seven kickoffs. His longest gain was 33 yards on a kickoff return.

"(Special teams coach) Joe (Marciano) found some keys we could read," rookie running back and special teams tackler Aaron Stecker said. "We just ran down there and did everything he told us."

The kicking game was also much improved. On eight kickoffs, Martin Gramatica put the ball into the end zone four times and through the end zone once. He made field goals from 23 and 47 yards in the second quarter. Punter Mark Royals averaged 44.2 yards on five punts.

Gramatica did miss wide right on a 50-yard field goal with 4:09 left in the first quarter, and the Bucs had several opportunities to pin the Bears deep on punts but couldn't down the ball.

"If we can keep improving each week," Stecker said, "We can have a dominant team on offense, defense and special teams."

Said coach Tony Dungy: "Special teams set the groundwork today. They really bounced back this game, and it went like it was scripted."

SAFETY ANNOUNCEMENT: John Lynch is expected to sign a contract extension today making him one of the league's highest-paid safeties.

The Bucs have called a 10 a.m. news conference at Raymond James Stadium for an "important announcement," though they would not confirm the signing. Lynch, an All-Pro safety in his eighth year with the Bucs, had 128 tackles last season.

FIRST START: As a rookie, Stecker earned a roster spot in part because of his proficiency returning kicks in the preseason. Sunday, Stecker made his first NFL start, fielding the opening kickoff 8 yards deep, then returning it 31 yards to the Tampa Bay 23.

Stecker also made a tackle on special teams.

"I was hoping I would get some more opportunities to get back there and return some long ones," Stecker said. "But the defense put up a goose egg, and you can't complain about that."

Stecker also rushed five times for 26 yards.

WELCOME BACK: Backup quarterback Eric Zeier entered the game with 35 seconds left in the third quarter and took his first snaps since Oct. 31, when he was injured in a 20-3 loss at Detroit. Sunday, Zeier went 3-for-3 for 19 yards.

MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: The fact that receiver Keyshawn Johnson had only two receptions doesn't indicate that the Bucs weren't throwing in his direction. On a number of occasions, Johnson was entangled with defensive backs and thought the referees should have thrown flags.

"The referees out there were a little bit horrible today," Johnson said. "They missed some calls, but I think when they got screamed at a few times, then they started to throw the flags."

PAYBACK IS HELL: When Johnson scored his 13-yard touchdown in the third quarter, running back Warrick Dunn leaped on top of him in celebration. "A few weeks ago I made a run and he grabbed me and threw me down, and I just wanted to repay the favor," Dunn said. "I don't think I can hit him harder. But I tried to get the guys into the game."

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