INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts' first preseason game of the year presented special teams coordinator Tom McMahon with moments of jubilation — and the occasional groan.
But that's to be expected when your players — many of them rookies — are getting the very first extended in-game exposure to special teams of their football careers.
All in all, however, the special teamers graded out positively for McMahon and his staff, giving the various units a good bit of momentum to carry into Saturday's Week 2 preseason matchup against the Baltimore Ravens at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We found some tacklers on this team — kickoff found some tacklers on this team," McMahon said of the punt and kickoff coverage units. "(We) found some holes, too."
We'll start with the bad news first, which was a blocked punt on the Colts' second possession of the night last Saturday against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Bills tight end Chris Gragg, lined up on the left side of the Indianapolis line, was able to bully his way right past the final line of protection up the middle to get his hand on the Pat McAfee punt, causing the ball to roll into the end zone.
Fortunately for the Colts, McAfee was able to bat the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety before a Bills defender could pick it up for a touchdown.
McMahon stated the obvious on that play.
"We can't give up a blocked punt," he said. "(We) got our butt kicked on that thing."
But beyond the blocked punt, McMahon saw flashes of excellence in the special teamers throughout the night, particularly with punt and kick coverage.
Oftentimes, younger players are able to get by their blockers and get to the returner, but they struggle to finish the play from there. But McMahon said he was impressed by the Colts players' abilities to not only get by their blocker, but to get the returner to the ground when they got there.
"There was long punts — 67 yards, 63 yards — and Pat (McAfee) put the ball out there for us," McMahon said. "We wanted to find out who would go down and cover, who would tackle."
The undisputed star of the night in that regard was inside linebacker Edwin Jackson, who had a team-best two special teams tackles on the night to go with a game-high eight tackles on defense.
Also recording tackles for the Colts' special teams units were inside linebackers Josh McNary, Antonio Morrison and Junior Sylvestre, cornerback Tay Glover-Wright, safety Stefan McClure and wide receiver Daniel Anthrop.
Anthrop's tackle was especially notable, considering it came on the Bills' final possession of the night. Down 19-12, Buffalo was hoping to mount a comeback with 1:08 left in the game.
Taking the kickoff three yards deep in his own end zone, Bills wide receiver Walter Powell decided to make a break for it, but Anthrop — the undrafted rookie out of Purdue — was right there to bring him down with a solid tackle at the 17-yard line, thwarting a larger return and giving the Buffalo offense a long field to work with on its final drive.
McMahon said plays like that show that his younger players are adaping to the special teams mindset, which requires a different skillset than they would need on offense or defense.
"You're trying to find out who are those guys, in the young guys — who are going to become part of that core?" McMahon said. "So it's a lot guys that have never played. They've been the top wideout at their school; they've been the top corner at their school; they've been the top safety. So they've never played special teams."
McMahon added: "You can't just (say), 'I'm a great safety, so I'm a great special teams player.'
"So we've got to find those guys," he said.
McMahon and his players are also trying to feel their way around the league's new touchback rule, which places touchbacks at the 25-yard line instead of the 20. It's an experimental measure put into place in March's NFL Owner's Meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., but McMahon said in the preseason, he's going to try to get returns on as many kickoffs as possible.
"We're going to kick them up and we're going to try to let everybody return them in the preseason (and) find out who the tacklers are," he said. "Because, you know, when you've got 16 regular season games, you've got to use these four preseason games to find out who those tacklers are, because you're going to get some balls returned on you in the regular season, especially with the new rule. So we're going to keep kicking them short and getting them returned."Returners need reps
A relative unknown for McMahon and the special teamers heading into Saturday's game against the Ravens will be the performance of their punt and kickoff returners.
A black and white look at some of my favorite images from the Bills game.
In the preseason opener, Quan Bray — who is the team's lead returner after a phenomenal rookie season last year — was the only Colts player to really get much work. Most of the other opportunities for others later in the game either turned into fair catches or touchbacks.
On punts, Bray had four returns for 25 yards — an average of 6.3 yards per return — with a long of 14 yards. Wide receiver Andre Debose — who has since been waived — also had one punt return for six yards, while wide receiver Chester Rogers' only punt return opportunity turned into a fair catch.
On kickoffs, Bray had one return for 25 yards, while running back Robert Turbin had one return for 16 yards. A third kickoff was downed for a touchback.
McMahon says there are "a lot of (returners) that I like at practice," but he's eager to see what they can do with more in-game opportunities.
"I love them all — they're doing a great job," he said. "But they're going to have to get a chance to get one out, you know, in the game. We had two or three guys last week that got opportunities, but they had to make the right choice and fair catch.
"We're going to keep putting guys out there and putting guys out there," McMahon continued. "Every one of those guys we've got are great returners, but now we just need to see them do it in a game."Back at itThe core Colts special teamers — McAfee, kicker Adam Vinatieri and long snapper Matt Overton — enjoyed a solid opening game against the Bills.
McAfee, who had tweaked his right knee earlier in the week in practice, punted five times for 293 total yards for an average of 58.6 yards per punt. His longest punt of the night was a 67 yarder, and two of his punts fell for touchbacks, while another was downed inside the 20.
Vinatieri, meanwhile, was 2-for-2 on his field goal attempts on the night, connecting from 24 and 38 yards out.