Last Sunday against the Chargers, Tampa Bay blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown…but also muffed a kickoff return that trapped the offense inside its own 10-yard line to start a drive. The Bucs downed one of their own punts at San Diego’s two-yard line in the third quarter, directly setting up field position for a go-ahead touchdown drive…but also allowed Charger return men to average 11.0 yards per punt runback and 28.5 yards per kickoff runback.
All of which left Head Coach Greg Schiano mostly happy with his special teams, but hoping for more.
“We’ve done some good things on special teams, and we’ve done some things that aren’t so good,” said Schiano. “We need consistency on our special teams. If that can come and we can become consistent, that can win us some games here.”
There is one area of the Bucs’ kicking-and-return game that has been very consistent this year, however, particularly over the last six weeks: Michael Koenen’s kickoffs.
We’ve mentioned Koenen’s kickoff prowess on occasion in the Captain’s Blog, but perhaps not adequately emphasized how important it is has been for the Buccaneers. But this is “Unsung Hero Week” in the CB, and – like Erik Lorig and Jeremy Zuttah – Michael Koenen is definitely one of those.
First, let’s take a look at just how overwhelming the numbers are. So far this season, Koenen has kicked off 55 times and, amazingly, 53 of them have reached the end zone. Of those 53, an NFL-high 42 resulted in touchbacks, creating Koenen’s league-leading 77.8% touchback rate on kickoffs. Minnesota’s Blair Walsh has been nearly as effective in that category, at 74.5%, but after that the list begins to fall off rather rapidly. In other words, even though the NFL’s move of the kickoff line from the 30-yard line back to the 35-yard line in 2011 has had a league-wide effect on the number of touchbacks, Koenen is still far better than most at producing them.
Here are the current top five in the NFL in touchback percentage on kickoffs, and the only five who even break 60%:
As Koenen’s touchback numbers add up, they keep other numbers from doing the same. His contribution in this area is truly unsung because we’ll never know exactly what the team has avoided by allowing almost no kickoff returns. In Weeks Seven and Eight, Tampa Bay faced two of the most dangerous return men in the league in New Orleans’ Darren Sproles and Minnesota’s Percy Harvin and emerged virtually unscathed. That’s because Koenen was 12 for 13 in producing touchbacks in those two games. Over the last six weeks, he has kicked off 40 times, hit every single one of them into the end zone and produced 34 touchbacks.
As a result, the average drive start for Tampa Bay opponents after a kickoff is the 20.7-yard line this season. Koenen may perform on special teams, but he has been a very valuable player for the Buccaneers’ defense this season, forcing opposing teams to travel as far as possible in order to score points.