INDIANAPOLIS — For most opponents, the Indianapolis Colts each week prepare for the tendencies and skillsets of two, maybe three, kick and punt returners.
But when preparing for the Houston Texans, Colts special teams coordinator Tom McMahon said, the Indy special teamers have been taking a close look at five different potential returners — Alfred Blue, Tyler Ervin, Will Fuller, Akeem Hunt and Braxton Miller — each of whom have the ability to break free and wreak havoc on Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Most games that you go into there, there's a two-headed monster," McMahon said. "There's a five-headed monster over there, and the guys blocking for them believe in them."
Ervin has been the Texans' (6-6) most consistent returner, both for punts and kickoffs. The running back has returned 21 punts for 223 yards, for an impressive average of 10.6 yards, which ranks seventh in the NFL. He has also returned 14 kickoffs for 263 yards, an average of 18.8 yards per return, a figure that ranks 18th in the league. He averaged 11 yards on two punt returns against the Colts Week 6 in Houston.
But perhaps the most explosive returner for the Texans is rookie wide receiver Will Fuller. Though rarely used to return kickoffs — he has just one return for 19 yards this season — Fuller has returned seven punts for 127 yards, an average of 18.1 yards per return, with a 67-yard touchdown on the first return of his career Week 4 against the Tennessee Titans.
With the late-season claim on the AFC South title on the line on Sunday, don't be surprised if Fuller is lined back deep to return more than a couple punts to try to make a game-changing play. McMahon said the Colts will plan accordingly with punter and kickoff specialist Pat McAfee.
"You know, the biggest thing that we've got to do, I think, is we've got to play the corners in terms of our kicking game," McMahon said. "Pat's done a nice job for us, and he's expected to do that. We want to play what we call, 'Take that big rectangle and make it smaller,' in all kinds of different ways with our alignments, with the things that we do. We've got to control them."
The other Texans special teamers form what McMahon considers a "great core," and includes punter Shane Lechler and kicker Nick Novak.
Lechler has been stellar in the punting game this season, with 53 punts for 2,528 yards, an average of 47.7 yards per kick, ranking fifth in the league. 35.8 percent of Lechler's punts have been downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line, giving Colts returner Chester Rogers — who has made marked improvements the past couple weeks — a certain challenge on Sunday.
Texans special teams coordinator Larry Izzo could also choose to be creative with Lechler, who, according to McMahon, has the ability to throw the ball if needed. In his 17-year career, the 40-year-old Lechler has completed 3 of his 5 passing attempts for 49 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass back in 2011 when he was with the Oakland Raiders.
His last pass attempt came in 2014, a 10-yard completion.
"This is a special teams coach that knows every trick in the book," McMahon said. "He's got a punter that can throw the ball — so we've got to be alert for fakes this week, too."
Then there's Novak, a career 82.1 percent kicker who is right at that mark this season, hitting 23-of-28 field goal attempts, and 18-of-20 (90 percent) of his extra point tries.
The Texans don't really rely on Novak's kick distance much; he hit a career-high-tying 53-yard field goal this season, but is 2-for-5 in field goal attempts of 50-plus yards in 2016.
Coverage-wise, the Texans have several players who have proven more-than-capable of finding the returner and making a play. Cornerback Robert Nelson leads the team with 10 special teams tackles, while the team has five other players — Brian Peters (7), Max Bullough (6), Charles James (6), Alfred Blue (6) and Don Jones (6) — with at least six special teams stops this season.
"They're still very, very good," McMahon said. "They've got it all: they've got great football players, and Larry's doing a good job."