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November 24, 2012

Colts special teams play needs improvement

INDIANAPOLIS — With the exception of placekickers Mike Vanderjagt and Adam Vinatieri, along with punters Hunter Smith and Pat McAfee, special teams has been anything but for the Indianapolis Colts over the past 12 seasons.

No matter who the special teams coach may be — and there have been four (Kevin Spencer, Russ Purnell, Ray Rychelski and now Marwan Maalouf) — since the beginning of the 2000 season, the Colts have continually struggled with punt and kick coverage as well as finding reliable and productive kickoff and punt returners.

The reasons for the unit’s troubles are varied. In recent years, Indianapolis has had problems trying to find good enough people to play on the coverage and return squads. Injuries have certainly played a major factor.

While first-line players rarely, if ever, see special teams duty, the top backups are often used. But when starters get hurt, the top backups are forced to play more. That means the Colts are left with using street free agents and undrafted rookies on special teams.

There have been exceptions over the years, of course. Outside linebacker Robert Mathis was a beast when he played on special teams earlier in his NFL career. He was annually one of the leading tacklers on the special teams unit. In fact, it was his play on special teams that prompted the Colts’ coaching staff to get him on the field more often with the No. 1 defensive unit.

Backup defensive tackle Darrell Reid was another Indianapolis player who gained a reputation as a skilled special teams performer. Several of his hard-nosed tackles on kickoff and punt returners were highlighted on ESPN.

But times change. And with the ever-changing makeup at the bottom of the roster, the last five or six spots on the team, continuity then becomes a major issue. The same people aren’t always on the field on special teams for every game.

The state of the Colts’ special teams units were once again brought into sharper focus during last week’s 59-24 loss at New England. Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman scored on a 68-yard punt return. Edelman also had a 49-yard punt return.

New England cornerback Devin McCourty, meanwhile, averaged 23.5 yards on four kickoff returns. MCourty has a long return of 29 yards.

For the season, Indianapolis is allowing an average of 25.3 yards per kickoff return and 13.7 yards per punt return. Conversely, the Colts are only gaining 19 yards on kickoff returns and 7.9 on punt returns. The disparity on the punt return and kickoff return averages between opponents and Indianapolis is one of a biggest in the league.

Colts interim coach/offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, as well as Maalouf, both recognize that there have been problems on special teams that must be addressed.

But there’s the rub. How exactly to do that remains the big question, especially when today’s opponent — the Buffalo Bills — have three dynamic returners in cornerback Leodis McKelvin, wide receiver Brad Smith and running back C.J. Spiller.

McKelvin is averaging 28.3 yards on 16 kickoff returns. Smith’s average is slightly better (28.7 yards) with less (7) returns and he has an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. McKelvin, though, is also averaging 21.9 yards on 16 punt returns and has returned two for TDs, including an 88-yarder, so far this season.

“Yeah I think injuries have had an effect on special teams. We’ve had a lot of different guys playing over there. But that’s still no excuse for having a [punt] return [for a touchdown]. And we’re now facing the two best returners in the National Football League,” Arians said late last week.

“We’ve got to [punt] the ball better too. We didn’t kick the ball as well as we’re capable of kicking it in that New England game. Pat McAfee has to have a great game in this game [against the Bills]. We’ve got to cover with our hair on fire because these cats will take it back in a minute.”

Maalouf, who is in his first year as the Colts’ special teams coordinator, knows that his coverage units will be tested this afternoon.

“It’s a lot of young guys with not a lot of experience,” he said this past week. “What we’re trying to do is to pack an entire time that we spent with guys that are still on the team from two-a-days and try to condense that in such a limited amount of time. A little bit of turnover with the roster, along with some injuries, effects special teams a lot.”

He realizes, though, that fans could care less about injuries and roster moves. The vast majority of the Colts’ supporters just want their team to be successful in all areas. No excuses are good enough.  Maalouf understands their feelings.

“It’s about results. Absolutely. We still have to do our job. That doesn’t change anything. We need big games from Pat [McAfee]. We need big games from Vinnie [Adam Vinatieri]. And we’ve got to cover [kicks] like we’ve covered in the past,” he said.

“If the wrong things happen at the wrong time, what happened last week [against New England] could be a result of it. That’s what we’re trying to avoid. Especially when you go against great returners. We’re going to see it [today]. They’ve got two exceptional returners. You’ve got to play with great technique and like our hair’s on fire.”

Containing McKelvin and Smith will be vital to the Colts’ success this afternoon.

“I don’t there are two other returners in the league who are on the same team that are as good as these guys. You’re going against two primary kick returners. We’ve got a big task ahead of us,” Maalouf said.

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