INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone this week is a guest on the Colts Official Podcast, where he discusses the team's kicking issues in 2019, its league-leading punt return unit and much more.
You can listen to that entire conversation above, but what were some of the top takeaways?
1. The kicking issues in 2019 presented a "tough situation," but Ventrone vows the Colts are "gonna be better next year:" Legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri began dealing with a nagging knee injury during training camp, which prevented him from kicking in all but one preseason game. Once the regular season started, Vinatieri and the kicking unit took a while to get into gear; in the first two weeks, he converted just 1-of-3 field goal attempts and missed two extra points.
Vinatieri eventually found some rhythm, hitting 10 of his next 12 field goal attempts and 11-of-12 extra-point tries — even being named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance in the Colts' Week 8 victory over the Denver Broncos — but then some issues reappeared.
It all came to a head Week 13 against the Tennessee Titans; Vinatieri reported feeling pain in his knee before the game, and would go on to miss one attempt wide left and had another two attempts blocked, the second of which — a potential go-ahead field goal with five minutes left in the fourth quarter — was returned by the Titans for a game-sealing touchdown.
Vinatieri would soon be placed on injured reserve, ending his 24th NFL season.
"It was a tough situation — it was," Ventrone said. "The one thing, you know, you never wanna see a player struggle, and you never wanna see the greatest of all-time struggle. So I thought that the personnel and the head coach did a really good job of supporting him, as did I.
"You know, obviously the one block in Tennessee was a protection issue — it wasn't even his fault on that one," Ventrone continued. "But we've gotta be better on that unit overall. We've gotta protect better, the kicker's gotta be able to perform. … You know, we didn't get the results we wanted and we're gonna be better next year."
2. The Colts' league-leading punt return unit was sparked late in the season by Nyheim Hines: As a rookie in 2018, Hines got off to a rocky start returning punts during the preseason, and he admitted that he poor performance got in his head. Chester Rogers would subsequently win the punt returner job and had one of the league's best return averages in both 2018 and through the first 12 games in 2019.
But when Rogers went down with a knee injury Week 13 against the Titans, the Colts needed someone to step into that punt returner role — and they were confident that Hines had put in the work to get the job done.
Boy, were they right.
Over the final five games of the season, Hines would log nine punt returns for 281 yards — for a mind-blowing average of 31.2 yards per return — and he had a record-setting performance Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers, returning two punts for a touchdown, and nearly taking a third punt to the house, and finishing with 195 total punt return yards on the day.
"I was jacked," Ventrone recalled of Hines' performance that day. "I mean, I think I almost beat him into the end zone on the second TD. He almost had three."
Ventrone commended Hines for his ability to work his way back from his early struggles as a returner — and it wasn't a coincidence, due to his hard work during the offseason, training camp and after practices.
"The one thing he did do well was he continued to work and trust the process," Ventrone said. "He didn't take on the role two years ago, obviously, but he worked at it — work, work, work. And then throughout this past spring and into training camp, we charted every punt that our returners caught throughout the entire training camp and the spring, and they did this on their own throughout the spring. Nyheim ended up totaling a crazy amount of balls — just under Chester (Rogers) in that area — so this kid developed, I would say, more consistency setting up on ball, trusting his hands.
"And when Chester goes down, now we trust him to go back there because he showed us through practice reps and his work ethic after practice that he could do it."
The Colts in 2019 not only led the league with a 17.4 yards-per-punt-return average — an astounding six yards better per return than the second-place New York Jets — but that 17.4 figure was the fifth-best punt return average in NFL history, and the best mark since 1961, when the Green Bay Packers averaged 17.8 yards per return.
3. Ventrone liked what he saw out of rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin in limited action at the end of the season: Simply put, it can't be easy to come in and replace the greatest player to ever play your position, but Chase McLaughlin faced that challenge head-on when the team claimed him off waivers on Dec. 4, with Vinatieri dealing with his knee injury.
But McLaughlin showed no signs of nerves in his four games to end the season with the Colts, hitting five of his six field goal attempts and all 11 extra-point tries — performing so well that he earned a one-year contract extension that gives him a chance to compete for Indy's kicking job heading into 2020.
"Chase came into a tough situation, to a tough situation, did a really good job," Ventrone said. "I like the kid's approach — he's very professional, you wouldn't even think that he was a rookie, very consistent, very routine. I thought that the specialists, Rigo and Luke, did a really good job of getting adjusted to him fast and quickly."
While Vinatieri underwent surgery to his knee and is yet to decide whether he wants to try to return for a 25th NFL season in 2020, Ventrone is confident in McLaughlin's ability to continue ascending if he needs to take over kicking duties full-time moving forward.
"We only missed one kick — that was a positive," Ventrone said. "I think that he'll do an even better job once we have more reps in the spring leading up into training camp and the season. So we really like Chase; he did a good job."
Here's a full breakdown of this week's Colts Official Podcast:
00:00 – 03:40: Latest Colts news
03:40-21:24: Writer's Block with Andrew Walker featuring Senior Bowl recap, QB draft Hype, Edgerrin James' HOF candidacy.
22:02 -35:55: Special Teams Coordinator Bubba Ventrone on the 2019 season, kicking struggles, kick returning game and how he gets ready for the 2020 draft.
36:22 – 48:30: Colts Myth Busters with Jeffrey Gorman and Casey Vallier – dispelling some Colts' myths in the offseason.
48:49-1:27: Segment with Sorgi – Jim Sorgi breaks down what it's like for players during Super Bowl week, Eli Manning's HOF candidacy, what made Peyton Manning great, and his memories being coached by Frank Reich.