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These mishaps of special concern to Bucs

Team seeks answers in an area in which it depends on stability.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2000


TAMPA -- Here's the good news: Through the first five games of the season, the Bucs have gotten exceptional punting from veteran Mark Royals.

In fact, in the past two games, Royals has averaged 47.6 yards and has dropped two inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

But for a team that wants to grind the ball out and win the war of field position, the rest of the punting news isn't that good.

The Bucs return game has been moderate, at times stagnant, averaging 6.9 yards. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay has been giving up 14.5 yards a return, has been mired in penalties, has allowed one touchdown (against New England) and gave up a crucial 57-yard return by Deion Sanders to set up the Redskins' 20-17 overtime win Sunday at Washington.

"(In) the kicking game, there seems to be one play that we let out (of) the bag each week," coach Tony Dungy said.

Now comes another wrinkle. Veteran punt returner/receiver Karl Williams, who had been responsible for every return this season until injuring his knee in the third quarter Sunday, is out for at least a month.

In comes veteran Andre Hastings, who has not played a regular-season game for the Bucs.

"It's been frustrating," special-teams coach Joe Marciano said Monday, one day after his unit surrendered Sanders' big play. "It's killing us, man. It's killing us. We can't go places by having special-teams breakdowns.

At the crux of the issue is what Marciano called bad timing between the players who are part of the return game. It seems, he said, that the unit seldom has been on the same page.

Even then, he said the Bucs are being outplayed.

"When we get good blocking we don't catch the ball, when we catch the ball we don't get good blocking," Marciano said. "The other teams' fliers are really dominating our outside guys. That's been the difference in the punt return game. Our fliers go down there and don't make a difference in the game, the other teams' fliers go down there and they are factors."

One reality is that the special-teams unit is not what it was last season. The group, once led by Shelton Quarles, Dexter Jackson, John McLaughlin and Shevin Smith, has had to rely primarily on new faces and rookies who have not grasped Marciano's scheme.

Quarles, a starting strong-side linebacker and nickel middle linebacker, led the Bucs in special-teams tackles last season but is seeing too many snaps on defense to be a consistent contributor. Jackson is recovering from a severe ankle injury and didn't get his first meaningful snaps until the Jets game on Sept. 24.

McLaughlin, one of the standouts from last season who routinely made it downfield to make the first tackle, was inactive the first four weeks. Smith, another standout from last season, was released at the end of training camp with an injury settlement.

And now, the 6-1, 190-pound Hastings likely could play a big role as a returner.

Hastings, 29, who has returned punts for the Steelers (who drafted him as a junior out of Georgia in the third round in 1993) and the Saints, said he considers himself a receiver who can return punts, but more important, is a player eager to contribute.

"I'm a professional and that's what professionals do," said Hastings, who has been inactive for every game this season. "They know their job and they do it. I consider myself a rare kind of football player. I have to just go out and be positive and do what I can to help the team and be productive."

For Hastings, who signed with Tampa Bay after the Bucs released Darnell McDonald during training camp, it's been tough sitting and waiting.

"I'm anxious to get out there and help us win," he said. "We're trying to win right now and that's the most important thing, winning. ... It's been very disappointing. I came here to play, I didn't come here to be inactive. It wasn't something that was foreseen. It was something that hit me totally out of the blue and I'm never going to be happy with that, I'm never going to accept that role. But, you have to do what you can to help the team, but that's not something I'm ever going to be happy with."

Hastings said he will prepare for Monday night against the Vikings as he has for every game, with the hope of either being an active receiver or a main punt returner.

"It doesn't matter to me, it doesn't matter at all," he said. "All I want to do is get my hands on the ball, and that's how I look at it."

Marciano said the one good sign is that Hastings has been there before.

"Andre is not cold, he's not a rookie," Marciano said. "He's done it before. It's never easy, never easier, but Andre has a lot of confidence in himself and his abilities. He's a veteran guy who's been in the heat of battle; I think he'll catch the ball, get going, read blocks and run hard."

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