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Almost really special

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Bucs rookie Nate Webster blocks John Jett's punt in the second quarter. The ball bounced into the end zone, but the Bucs could not recover.

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- Special teams, an area of concern all season, came up with the Bucs' only big plays in a 28-14 loss to Detroit Thursday night.

The biggest could have been bigger. Rookie Nate Webster broke through the middle to block a John Jett punt deep in Lions territory in the second quarter. But Ronde Barber bobbled the loose ball on the goal line, and John McLaughlin didn't fall on it in the end zone, allowing Detroit's Corwin Brown to recover and reduce what could have been a Bucs touchdown to a safety.

"I dropped the d--- thing," Barber said. "We're just not making plays. I'm not making plays. We're not getting it done."

Marcus Jones gave the Bucs their second blocked field goal in as many games, getting a hand on a 41-yard attempt by Jason Hanson. The Bucs drove downfield and tied the score at 14 on Martin Gramatica's fourth field goal of the night, a 55-yarder that was the longest kick of his two-year career. In the second quarter, Gramatica had set his season long with a 51-yarder.

"It's nice to make kicks like that, but it really doesn't matter when you're losing," he said.

When special teams weren't scoring, they were setting up scores. Rookie Aaron Stecker had two solid returns in the first half, returning the opening kickoff 28 yards and a second-quarter kickoff 32 yards. A 15-yard personal foul penalty was tacked onto the latter, setting the Bucs up on their 49.

"In the last few weeks, I've been criticized a lot about the returns, and rightfully so," Stecker said. "I've been reading too much, taking too long to get started, and I need to just get after it. (Special teams) wanted to make a statement, and we did pretty well."

The Bucs also did a solid job of containing Detroit's Desmond Howard, who had returned six kickoffs for 218 yards in the teams' first meeting. Howard averaged 22 yards on three first-half kickoff returns and called for a fair catch on his 10 on the Bucs' first punt. Howard returned the second-half kickoff to the 25.

QUARLES OUT: Starting linebacker Shelton Quarles, who entered second on the team with 39 tackles, did not dress after being listed as probable during the week with a strained right groin. Alshermond Singleton took Quarles' spot.

CRISIS AVERTED: Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson barely avoided fumbling on the opening play for the second straight game. On first and 10 from the Bucs 31, Shaun King threw a short pass to Johnson, who was hit as he tried to catch the ball. It popped loose and Detroit recovered before officials ruled the pass incomplete. Play was stopped momentarily, but officials said the play was not being reviewed, and Johnson caught a 16-yard pass two plays later.

Johnson dodged another bullet early in the third quarter when he was hit again after a catch -- the blow from Brown knocked his helmet off -- but again officials ruled it incomplete.

"I feel like I was in a (Mike) Tyson fight, but I'll be all right," Johnson said.

REACHING OUT: King will launch an educational program for middle school students called "King's Dream" on Tuesday night in St. Petersburg. A group of 20 students will attend 12 classes at the Academy Prep Center for Education, where they will research and write about the civil rights movement, slavery and the Civil War and modern civil-rights struggles in Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. The program will conclude in April with a trip through cities such as Atlanta and Montgomery, Ala.

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