Vinatieri, Special Teams Playing Well Early in 2008 Preseason
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. – From early in training camp, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri said he had a goal. It was a clear goal, one he believed he could attain.
The objective was to prove what he very much believed – that he still, as he said early in camp, had plenty of juice in his right leg.
Vinatieri, the Colts' 13-year veteran kicker, has been part of what Head Coach Tony Dungy said this week has been a solid 2008 Training Camp for the Colts' special teams, a training camp that has included strong performances from various areas.
Punter Hunter Smith.
Kickoff coverage. Punt coverage.
The returning of T.J. Rushing.
All of have been solid, as has the play of Vinatieri, who in two preseason games has yet to miss a field goal and who has consistently kicked off into the end zone.
"They're traveling pretty good," Vinatieri said of his kickoffs this week at Colts training camp, which continued Wednesday with a pair of practices at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
"Training camp is one of things where you practice more. There are double days. There is a lot of different stuff. You really have to be able to manage your reps."
Whatever the approach for the Colts' special teams, it has worked.
Vinatieri, a two-time Pro Bowl selection entering his third Colts season, didn't have a field goal over 40 yards a year ago for the first time in his career. Against Carolina this past Saturday, he had a 42-yard field goal, with each of his three kickoffs reaching the end zone and two resulting in touchbacks.
In two preseason games, Vinatieri is 3-for-3 on field goals, with all five of his kickoffs reaching the end zone and two resulting in touchbacks.
"He's hit his field goals in practice and he's hit everything in the game," Dungy said. "I think he's just been determined to kick like he can kick."
Vinatieri said a focus in the preseason for he and Smith is ensuring they enter the season capable of continuing their preseason performances.
"We're really trying to make sure we stay as fresh as we can so once the season starts – with the long season we're going to have – we're still fresh," Vinatieri said.
Smith, entering his 10th season as the Colts' punter, finished last season with a 41.9-yard average and a 34.2-yard net average. The overall average was his lowest since 2002 and his next was his lowest since 2001.
In two preseason games in 2008, Smith has punted three times for a 51.0-yard average and a 49.3-yard net average.
"We talked about it and I think really both guys felt like they didn't have their best year kicking (last season)," Dungy said. "It's just a matter of them saying, 'I want to kick my best.' They've trained very well. It hasn't been the type of thing, 'Well, I'll get myself grooved for the regular season.' We need to kick well and cover well all the way through camp and they've hit them well from Day One."
The kicking specialists aren't alone in their improvement early in the preseason.
Third-year cornerback T.J. Rushing last season returned 19 punts for a 13.1 yards average and returned a 90-yarder for a touchdown against Oakland. He also returned 31 kickoffs for a 23-yard average. He finished 12th in the AFC in kickoff returns and while he did not have enough returns to qualify for the AFC leaders in punt returns, his average would have ranked third in the AFC.
In two preseason games, he has broken three long returns – a 29-yard punt return in the preseason opener and kickoff returns of 40 and 42 yards this past Saturday.
The Colts' coverage teams, which have struggled at times in recent seasons, also have fared well in the preseason, Dungy said. The Colts allowed Carolina minus-0.3 on punt returns and 22.7 on kickoff returns after allowing Washington 20.3 yards on kickoff returns and three yards on punt returns.
On Sunday, a day after the Colts' second preseason loss, Dungy said the special teams were among the areas that had performed well in each game. And Vinatieri said if his goal entering training camp was about proving he had some juice left he said the Colts' special teams has a simpler, equally-imant objective.
"Our team obviously has good offense, defense and we've had OK special teams the last few years, but we've been kind of average in those phases," Vinatieri said. "We've kind of taken it upon ourselves to help our coverage teams by kicking the ball even further or higher.
"There are 11 guys on the field, but if we can do our job even a little bit better, it helps everybody else do theirs, too. It really is a team effort and until I kick every ball through the uprights and make every kick a touchback, there really is room for improvement. I'm sure Hunter would say the same thing.
"The more hang time and the more fair catches we can make those guys do and the more touchbacks that I can do, it's only going to help our chances."