Difference in Kickoff Coverage is Subtle and Imant, Bullitt Says
INDIANAPOLIS – As Melvin Bullitt sees it, it's a subtle difference.
At the same time, it's all the difference.
Bullitt, a second-year safety and one of the Colts' top special teams players said this week there is definitely is a change in how the Colts cover kickoffs this season, and it's a change that has led to a marked improvement in the area.
The difference, Bullitt said, is primarily mental. It's a difference in attitude.
And if the difference is hard to see or quantify, Bullitt said it doesn't make it unimportant.
"I think last year guys were running down, looking for someone to make a play," Bullitt said as the Colts (3-2), the five-time defending AFC South champions, prepared to play the defending NFC North champion Green Bay Packers (3-3) at Lambeau Field in Green Bay Wis., Sunday at 4:15 p.m.
"I think this year guys are running down wanting to make the play. That's the difference. When you have 10 guys running full speed and everyone wants to get a piece of the ball . . .
"You know somebody's going to make a big play."
Which is just want the Colts have done this season – and not just last week, when the kickoff coverage team had one of its most memorable games in recent seasons in a 31-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens.
"We played very well on special teams and (Colts Head) Coach (Tony Dungy) said this Monday: 'We made all the big momentum plays in that game,''' Colts Vice President of Football Operations Chris Polian said.
"When you do that, obviously things continue to build on themselves over the course of the game."
How much momentum did kick coverage generate against Baltimore?
Consider: Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked off six times, registering three touchbacks with the three other returns being stopped inside the Baltimore 20.
Vinatieri's first-half kicks went five yards deep in the end zone, three yards deep, five yards deep, nine yards deep, eight yards deep. Not until the second half, with Indianapolis leading 31-0 early in the third quarter, did he not reach the end zone with a kickoff.
That kick went to the Baltimore 4, after which safety Matt Giordano stopped returner Yamon Figures at the Ravens 19.
"I don't know what it is this year, but he's booming the ball," safety and special teams player Giordano said of Vinatieri. "Those are huge. It's fun to see, when you're running down there, the ball five yards deep in the end zone. You're kind of in a way just hoping the returner comes out, because you'll be the one to make the tackle inside the 20."
Vinatieri this season has kicked off 23 times, with 17 of those kicks reaching the goal line or end zone. Three of the kicks that didn't make the end zone were squibbed or kicked intentionally short, and another was an onside kick. The two remaining kicks reached the 3- and 4-yard lines.
Vinatieri reached the end zone on 38.5 percent of his kickoffs last season.
"We're just swinging for the fences, I guess," Vinatieri said. "We're all trying to do our part, and that's for me to try to hit the ball deep and for the guys to run down and cover well like they've been doing this year puts a little less pressure on the defense if they can start with the opposing team's offense having to go the long field. We all work together.
"We've been practicing in the offseason, trying to get some extra depth. So far, so good."
The Colts, after ranking 20th in the NFL last season – when opponents averaged starting on their 29-yard line when Indianapolis kicked off – are 8th in the category this season. Opponents have averaged starting on their own 24.4-yard line.
"Guys are flying on kickoffs, and on all the special teams units right now," Bullitt said. "It's like a dogfight between us to get to the tackle. Everybody's flying down there. (Defensive tackle) Darrell (Reid) is always complaining how he needs to get faster, so he can get down there first. It's just a matter of who wants to get to the ball first.
"It's the dirty work of the team. You kind of have to have dirty mindset, playing on special teams. You have to be willing to make the big hit, and sometimes you have to be willing to take a hit for a teammate to make a play. You have to be willing to run into the wedge just to clear up somebody else. Everybody's done a good job on there."
Whatever the nature of the work, Bullitt did it in a high-profile way against the Ravens this past week. Bullitt has started the past three games for injured starter and 2007 Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders at safety.
He has continued to play special teams during that span, and against Baltimore Sunday, he had two high-impact tackles, pinning the Ravens on their 19 and 14 on back-to-back kickoffs. The Colts took possession on their 39 (after a Ravens punt) and on the Baltimore 28 (after a turnover) on their two ensuing possessions, and scored 10 points to take a 17-0 lead.
"That just continues to build," Giordano said. "Adam kicks it five yards deep. We get a tackle inside the 20, then our defense starts. The opposing offense is pinned deep. It carries over to the defense, then hopefully we get a three and out on defense, and it carries over to our offense."
Dungy said this week the kickoff coverage team started strongly last season before struggling at times in the second half of the season.
The key now, Giordano said, is for the unit to continue to develop.
"Every step of the game, every phase of the game, is important," Giordano said. "That's what we're capable of doing. We all know we're capable of doing that. We have to now be consistent doing it. We can't go into next weekend, have five kickoffs and only have two inside the 20 or one inside the 20.
"We have to continue to improve. Hopefully, we will and continue to keep this thing rolling."
Dungy said the difference is more than desire. It's also about experience.
While the Colts' special teams – like most in the NFL – are made up of many young players, there are veterans on the unit, too. While Bullitt (five tackles) is in his second season and leading special-teams tackle Pierre Garcon (seven tackles) is a rookie, defensive tackle Darrell Reid (six tackles) is in his fourth season, as is Giordano (three tackles), while cornerback Tim Jennings (four tackles) is a third-year veteran.
"We've been able to keep the continuity," Dungy said. "One of the things that hurts you (on special teams) is when you have injuries and you have to put different guys in, especially young guys who haven't done it a lot in their career in college. Some of our young guys have been pretty good, and we've gotten some good play from (defensive end) Curtis Johnson and (safety) Jamie Silva and some of the younger guys, as well as Melvin Bullitt, (linebacker) Clint Session, Matt Giordano, guys who have been with us. So, if we can keep those guys out there, I think we're going to be in good shape.
"They take pride in it. Guys that have been here for a while, Darrell Reid and that group of guys, they want to do well and they have done well so far. The biggest thing for us is putting the same guys out there in the same position so they can improve."
Said Bullitt, "We have a lot of new guys, but we have a lot of experienced guys out there as well. Now, as it's going into the fifth and sixth game of the season, people have their feet underneath them. The new guys aren't big-eyed, looking around the stadium. They're just focused on the job and they understand the importance of the job is staying in their lane and not over-pursuing the ball.
"I think that's really helped us and it's going to continue to help us."
How much of a help the kickoff coverage is to the offense and defense, Bullitt said, is evidenced by the importance veteran players place on the unit. That importance is something of which three-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday reminds the special teams players on a weekly basis, and in the most important forum imaginable.
"It boosts the rest of the team, too," Bullitt said. "Jeff Saturday always says before the game, 'Special teams start us off. Get us started right.' He says that before every game, 'Special teams, go out there and dominate.'
"Everything takes care of itself from there."