Whether it was the splash plays — like tracking down muffed punts or thwarting fake field goals in a critical situation — or the less flashy plays — like solid kick coverage resulting in less-than-ideal field position — the Indianapolis Colts' special teams units came to play on Sunday.
And it was their collective play that seemed to pick up the other two phases at times and help lead the Colts to their first victory of the 2022 season, 20-17 over the Kansas City Chiefs.
"We gotta give a special thanks to the special teams," a jubilant Colts linebacker Shaquille Leonard, who was inactive on Sunday but was still a major energy boost on the Colts' sideline, told reporters after the game. "You look at the special teams, man, kicking field goals or pinning them back deep or getting that punt to start the game off, that's what it means to play on all three phases and that's what we did today."
There were moments on Sunday the Colts' special team units made plays, and moments in which the Chiefs' special teams units couldn't seem to get out of their own way. Either way, when most NFL games seem to come down to the difference between three or four big plays, you have to figure out a way to capitalize, and that's what Indianapolis was able to do.
"Games are nothing but highs and lows, hills and valleys," said tight end Kylen Granson. "So, you know, just keeping a steady mindset, just knowing when good things are happening you have to stay locked in, and when bad things are happening you also have to stay locked in. But it definitely contributed to the momentum in the game, getting those big-time special teams plays."
Granson made a couple major plays for the Colts' special teams units on Sunday, including their very first of the afternoon. After the Indianapolis offense went three-and-out on its opening drive, punter Matt Haack boomed his first kick of the day deep into Kansas City territory. Returner Skyy Moore was unable to haul in the punt at the 8-yard line, and Granson was in the right spot at the right time, falling on the football at the Chiefs' 4-yard line.
Three plays later, quarterback Matt Ryan found rookie tight end Jelani Woods for his first of two touchdown catches on the day, giving the Colts an early 7-0 lead.
"I was so juiced," Granson said of that early splash play. "(Special teams coordinator) Bubba (Ventrone) came off the sideline and we had a big 'ol jump-up. I was freakin' amped. And then, of course, we go down, get some points on the board — all around, nice. Couldn't draw it up any better than that."
That pattern would continue throughout the rest of the ballgame:
» Chiefs kicker Matt Ammendola, filling in for an injured Harrison Butker, missed both an extra-point attempt and a key fourth quarter field goal attempt from 34 yards out, with the Chiefs leading 17-13 midway through the final period. Colts kicker Chase McLaughlin, meanwhile, was a perfect 2-for-2 on both field goals and extra-points, nailing kicks from 43 and 51 yards out, respectively.
» The Colts' kick coverage teams were on point. Granson downed another terrific Haack punt at the Kansas City 1-yard line later in the first quarter, while the Chiefs started two other drives via kickoff at their own 15- and 12-yard line. Kansas City's final offensive drive of the day, which ended in a Rodney McLeod Jr. interception, could've started at their own 15 had it not been for an unnecessary roughness call on the Colts that pushed them up to their 30.
» Another critical play came early in the fourth quarter, as the Chiefs, leading 17-13, lined up for a would-be 42-yard field goal. Instead, however, they attempted a fake field goal play that featured holder/punter Tommy Townsend drifting to his left and attempting a pass to tight end Noah Gray that sailed high. Even if Gray had caught the pass, an alert Bobby Okereke and Grover Stewart had already sniffed out the fake and had sprinted the tight end's way to bring him down short of the first-down marker.
"Special teams, you know, is that X-Factor where a big play can really swing momentum," Okereke said.
Oftentimes the offense and the defense gets the attention, but there's a reason football, by those who play and coach it, is known as a three-phase game. The Colts excelled in special teams on Sunday, and got timely play out of their offense and defense, to earn win No. 1.
"Special teams came up huge," head coach Frank Reich said. "The muffed punt, the fake field goal that we denied, the punt downed on the 1, good coverage on kickoffs. Really good."